Growing up, Francis Owusu struggled to achieve that oh-so-important childhood goal of fitting in.
Hailing from Ghana, Canberra was the last stop on his parents’ diplomatic trail. When their term finished, they naturalised and that was that – Canberra was home. Except it wasn’t.
“I didn’t have a large social circle when I moved to Canberra,” he says.
“Being a young African kid, I was treated differently because of how I looked. I experienced racism and discrimination and that affected my sense of identity and confidence.”
It all changed when he got involved in a rock eisteddfod.
“I got on stage and danced and for the first time in my life, people were looking up at me and applauding rather than looking down on me and frowning,” he said.
His continued involvement in performing arts at school later led to being part of a boyband for a decade. He discovered along the way the means to express himself that transcended words.
He soon realised his calling was to tap into his experiences and devise a way to empower children to overcome feelings of isolation.
Kulture Break was born in 2002.
“This name embraces the meaning of breaking negative cultural barriers, stereotypes and beliefs that prohibit young people from being free to be themselves,” Francis explained.
It began with classes at schools, focusing on marginalised and disadvantaged demographics.
From seven kids at one primary school, the social enterprise grew and, at the height of engagement, was reaching 8000 kids weekly.
Kulture Break is not for profit but if they’re selling anything, Francis says, it’s “belonging”.
“What we have found consistently is when you create a place of commonality, where people of all backgrounds and ages come together to express themselves through movement and not through voice, it allows everyone to communicate and build identity,” he says.
“We use dance as a vehicle to give people a sense of belonging or a doorway to a place where they’re safe to express and be themselves.
“Our vision is to influence a culture, empower a generation and, ultimately, to become a force that transforms lives.”
Kulture Break runs dance classes after school most days of the week and also year-round programs through schools. Styles vary from hip hop and breakdance to contemporary ballet and jazz.
The idea is to provide early intervention programs that enhance youth empowerment, belonging, inclusion, confidence and self-expression – the importance of which Francis says can’t be over-stated in a person’s formative years.
“A sense of identity, of a safe place to belong, of being accepted for who you are – these are big issues for young people,” he says.
“One thing we combat is the notion that you have to do something to be someone.
“You don’t become somebody; you are somebody.”
It’s a message Francis hopes will be loud and clear at Kulture Break’s mid-year expo later this month.
Featuring performances from current students and alumni coming together to celebrate the impact Kulture Break has had on their lives, Francis describes it as “a showcase of who they are”.
As this year marks the organisation’s 20th anniversary, the theme will be music of the early-2000s.
Audiences can expect bangers from Black Eyed Peas, Destiny’s Child and all the girl and boy bands of the era.
Students are aged three to the 78-year-old Carol, a particular inspiration for Francis.
“She rocks up in her leggings and high-top sneakers and is just amazing,” he says.
“I’ve told her so long as she keeps coming, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”
The spectrum of students of all ages, cultures and abilities speaks to the organisation’s higher purpose.
“Kulture Break is for anyone who wants a place to belong,” Francis says.
“That’s the real message – ‘come as you are’.”
Tickets to Kulture Break’s 2022 Mid Year Expo “REWIND” are $36.87 and can be purchased online.