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Project Positive: Flipping Inspiring.

February 18, 2015

ProjecctPositiveOnline05Text by Brianna Spause. Images by Jason Melcher.

Damon Holley moved to West Philadelphia when he was 14. The shy Rhode Island transplant wouldn’t even ride the train for the fear of being mugged. And now he’s dancing on one.

His boisterous dance troupe, Project Positive, rolls around moving subway cars and onto crowded street corners. Loud enough to grab attention and friendly enough to incite a smile, Project Positive raises awareness of their program through public breakdancing performances.

Spare change donations are invested back into the program that Holley and a few longtime friends started, which engages and inspires young people through hip-hop dance.

The plan started off small in 2010 by making dance accessible in their own neighborhoods through workshops for children age 6 and older. Project Positive exploded when Holley, now 26, was arrested in March on the Broad Street Line, charged with disorderly conduct and defiant trespassing while dancing. The charges were later dropped.

Since then, the program has expanded to six locations around the city, offering $5 workshops Monday through Saturday.

“Since my spiel on the train, we have been leveraging our networks because we understand that there are people who don’t know about us and our message,” Holley says. “I’m thankful that this turned into something good because they really tried to slander what we were doing and I don’t think they took the time to find out what it really was.”

The misunderstanding generated interest that landed Project Positive a partnership with Villa TV and Rising Sons, another community project.

Jamila Abdur, site supervisor for West Philadelphia’s Christy Recreation Facility, has watched Project Positive grow from an idea into a movement.

“In this neighborhood, it has brought a lot of positivity,” Abdur says. “They bring so much positive energy to the facility and stability for these young kids. It’s crazy that Damon chose that name for the group because the kids are definitely living up to the expectations.”

“What’s the name of the game?” Holley shouts to a small class on a Thursday night.

“Pay attention!” the students cry in unison, their young eyes fixed firmly on Holley.

Stiff movements become fluid and focus never falters as the eight-counts fly by.

“I’ve learned things about myself that I would have never imagined by working with kids,” says Holley. “I have yet to find anything else in the world that brings people together like hip-hop dance.”

Naiteshyia Bennett, a 17-year-old who has been dancing with Project Positive for two years, noticed something different about the group immediately.

“What a lot of crews around here lack is teamwork,” says Bennett. “They [Project Positive] never leave anybody behind. If you fall, the whole team falls. Even if I’m the only girl out there, I appreciate the way they treat me as one of them.”

A teammate silently approaches her from behind, adjusts her shirt and leaves without a word.

“It’s things like that,” Bennett continues. “Project positive reminds me so much of the family that I always wanted. From dancing, to taking care of me, Project Positive is my life.”

Holley expects that Project Positive will continue to grow as rapidly as it did in 2014, due to the expansion grant the program was awarded by the Knight Foundation, when Holley was named a Black Male Engagement Leader of 2014.

He hopes to secure studio space to centralize workshop locations and maybe offer transportation to students sometime in the future.

For now, he’s taking everything one step at a time.

The current focus is on perfecting routines for upcoming performances and expanding horizons through dance.

“Project Positive could be anything,” Holley says. “It could be inspiring youth through DJing, through graffiti, playing basketball, doing the dishes or cleaning up trash in your local park. That’s Project Positive. It’s taking out the time from yourself to something positive for someone else.”

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