Native son: Creating dancers in Scarborough

By Marlene Leung

From behind his black desk, Paul “Kaze” Thurton gazes out his office window, overlooking the snow-covered parking lot of a Scarborough industrial zone. It’s not the prettiest view, just asphalt and the long winding curves of Progress Avenue. But from here, the 28-year-old sees only the future.

Scarborough is where Thurton grew up and got his start in competitive b-boying more than 10 years ago. And it’s here that he decided to set up a dance studio at age 22.

He is one of many young entrepreneurs who are opening businesses in the suburb east of Toronto’s downtown core. However, rather than the food markets or big box stores that have traditionally found a home in the sprawling former municipality, he and others are bringing edgier, cooler establishments to the region. 

In 2009, recently graduated from George Brown College’s construction engineering program, Thurton took the plunge and opened Simply Swagg Dance Studio in a nondescript industrial park just south of Highway 401 and McCowan Road.

“Scarborough is such a melting pot,” Thurton says with a smile. “There’s not too many outlets for urban dance, in particular. This is one of the few [dance studios] in Toronto that offers nothing but urban styles.” Those styles include breaking, hip-hop, R&B, house and krump.

For Thurton, an established dancer and b-boy who has choreographed and performed for the likes of Drake and Kardinal Offishall, and performed with Nas, it was never a question of where he would put down roots. Dance has taken him around the world, from South Korea to Russia to France, but Scarborough will always be home.

Signs of his hip-hop heritage are displayed throughout the studio. A giant graffiti-style mural of the Toronto skyline adorns the main wall, and a collection of sneakers lines his windowsill.

Thurton says other business reasons kept him in the ‘burbs — mainly the surplus of dual-income families with kids looking for extracurricular activities.

“I like to keep it out here; out here is where all the families are,” he says when asked why he never considered opening a studio in downtown Toronto. “Downtown you might get dancers, but out here you can create dancers from a very young age.”

Since taking that initial leap, he hasn’t looked back. The business grew quickly: it took just two months for Thurton to break even, and about a year for the venture to become lucrative.

He estimates he has 300 to 500 students each year, ranging in age from three to adult.

Last fall, Thurton moved the studio from a 1,200-square-foot space at the back of the industrial park to its current 3,000-square-foot location in the same complex.

There’s a lot of urban elements that are coming out of the east … it just happens to end up downtown. But it starts here.

Business, to say the least, is booming.

But even as enrolment grows, Thurton says he never loses sight of his main goal: building an urban dance studio in an area that is arguably one of the historic homes of hip-hop in Toronto. From b-boy crews like the Supernaturalz to MCs like Maestro Fresh Wes and groups like Monolith, Scarborough has spawned some of the city’s best.

Something about the bedroom community gives the studio a feeling that’s difficult to replicate downtown, Thurton says. 

“I go to these studios downtown … but the feel when I go in them is dead at times,” he says. Many downtown studios operate on a drop-in basis, he points out, which doesn’t encourage regular visits from students or a sense of community.

“This is like a home for some of these kids. This is what they look forward to in the week.”

Because the neighbourhood is one of the most multicultural in the city, Thurton draws students from many backgrounds and walks of life.

“Each race or religion that comes in here brings what they have to offer, and it all kind of meshes,” he says.

“There’s a lot of urban elements that are coming out of the east … it just happens to end up downtown. But it starts here.”