COBA’s New Generation: Taking it to the Next Level

A new generation of dancers is rising through COBA’s ranks, poised to lead the charge in evolving Toronto’s dance landscape.

By Christelle Agboka

When the Collective of Black Artists was founded in 1993, Toronto’s dance climate was decidedly Eurocentric. The fledgling company rapidly set about introducing the city to a high caliber of dance based on an African aesthetic. “Things have [really] opened up in terms of what is considered high art,” says Charmaine Headley, COBA co-founder. Today, with a new generation of dancers rising through the company’s ranks, Headley anticipates that COBA is poised to continue to lead the charge in evolving the city’s the dance landscape.

COBA's company of dancers performs Saraca, choreagraphed by Bakari Lindsay.

COBA’s company of dancers performs Saraca, choreagraphed by Bakari Lindsay.

Unlike the founding members of the company, most of COBA’s current dancers do not have a lived experience of African and Caribbean dance. Instead, they bring influences from hip-hop, dance hall and other, newer urban styles. Headley says, “It’s not just about [them] learning the traditional dances but also about recognizing that within each and every tradition there is evolution. It’s important to recognize their choreographic ideas, their different ways of speaking; that is a possibility for growth.”

Three of COBA’s up-and-comers, Nickeshia Garrick, Mikhail Morris and Dammecia Hall, exhibit the passion and versatility to help push COBA forward. If it takes 10,000 hours to become the best in your field, as author Malcolm Gladwell claims, these young dancers have already reached that magic number. Beyond well-honed dance abilities, they each bring a rich and varied dance background to COBA.

Jamaica-born Mikhail’s early training in modern contemporary, traditional folklore and West African dances provided him a natural transition to COBA, where he could draw on his skills, yet remain challenged. Nickeshia and Dammecia fell in love with African movement after years of training in strictly European traditions – Nickeshia as a student at Simon Fraser University, and Dammecia as a student, and later dancer, with Casimiro Nhussi’s Nafro Dance Productions in Winnipeg.

Up-and-coming young dancers (L-R) Dammecia Hall, Mikhail Morris and Nickeshia Garrick rehearse.

Eventually their paths, like Mikhail’s, led to COBA. “Since university I was hooked and knew I wanted to join a company that was modern/contemporary-based but also infused African and Caribbean dance forms,” Nickeshia says.

Before COBA, Dammecia spent a year in Toronto exploring hip-hop and founded Define Movement, a hip-hop crew, in Winnipeg the following year. She explains, “I have a natural connection to hip-hop, the dance, the culture.” Now back in Toronto, Dammecia says, “COBA took care of all the junctions I’d been travelling on in dance. It was the place where they all met.” With the help of passionate young dancers like Nickeshia, Mikhail and Dammecia, COBA will continue to evolve, forging new paths and new traditions for African and Caribbean dance.

For more information about upcoming events from COBA, visit their website at

Making Space for Social Change


When you set out to foster change, great things will happen. Just ask the people behind the Centre for Social Innovation.


By Stephanie Cloutier

For eight years, the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) has been cultivating a reputation for developing social innovators and fostering change-makers. One measure of their success is the fact that they have been able to open three spaces in Toronto and will soon open another in New York City. The newest Toronto space is the entire third floor of the new cultural hub in Regent Park, Daniels Spectrum.

Natasha and CSI Regent Park Tenants

CSI Regent Park Manager, Natasha Stephens, and tenants tour the new space.

When the Regent Park neighbourhood crops up in the headlines, it’s often portrayed as a stereotypical inner city neighbourhood, with all the social ills that can entail. What is less often mentioned is the hard work by area residents who are trying to bring about positive change. Their work and commitment has built a strong sense of community, which thrives even as the massive revitalization project chugs along. It was precisely this sense of unity and desire to make improvements for the community that attracted CSI to the location.

“Once we spent a little bit of time in Regent Park, we were inspired and engaged by the vibrancy of the local community,” says Tonya Surman, chief executive officer of CSI. “It became incredibly clear that this was a deeply exciting opportunity that we wanted to be a part of.”

CSI Regent Park's Space for Collaboration

Part of what facilitates collaboration is setting up large, communal shared spaces.

Since their inception in 2004, CSI has provided shared office facilities to organizations with a social mission. Their 800 members enjoy benefits like affordable office , meeting and event space, access to shared services and technical support.

But perhaps an even more important part of the CSI model is an emphasis on community, which includes shared common rooms like a large kitchen and open work areas. CSI is host to hundreds of events each year, such as skills-building workshops, lectures, conferences, discussions and networking socials. All members have a profile on CSI’s intranet, which allows them to connect and to promote their own events, news and job openings in the organization’s newsletter and website.

With its first two shared workspaces—CSI Spadina and CSI Annex–CSI had created a very successful model, but they knew that Regent Park was special. Before any concrete was poured to build the 10,000-square-foot space, CSI had to ask a strategic question. How could their particular brand of collaboration help enhance local community initiatives? 

“We talked to the organizations and individuals in Regent Park and asked them, ‘What can we learn from each of other? What can you teach us?’,” explains Natasha Stephens, manager of CSI Regent Park and a resident of the neighbourhood. “We didn’t come with any idea that we understood what the problem was or even had the solution. We came with what we think could add value to what they’re doing and that’s something that’s very different.“

CSI Regent Park Tenants Enjoy a Lunch Together

Events like shared salad lunches help to foster a community and shared solutions to common problems.

One of these ideas is to hold communal food events that inspire mingling and casual networking, which is an existing part of the CSI model. Another initiative unique to CSI Regent Park is their “Really, Really Free Market”, which is a barter and exchange service between CSI members and other tenants in the building. By organizing events like these, the CSI team hopes to encourage members to learn from each other and help one another solve problems

“CSI Regent Park will be focused on creating community and neighbourhood-based solutions,” says Tonya. “For us, this means working with community groups and social entrepreneurs to develop new solutions for an even better Regent Park”.

With the neighbourhood revitalization poised to enter the third phase, there is an undeniable sense of something wonderful happening here. Organizations that were formerly based in Regent Park have returned to the neighbourhood. Some of them are now members of CSI Regent Park. Whereas some groups might previously have been working out of home offices or isolated office spaces, the team hopes their new space will facilitate collaboration between these organizations

“We have one of our members here who started their roots here almost 30 years ago,” says Natasha. “Now, the organization has transformed and developed, and they’ve come back here now. It’s like a homecoming for them. They’ve grown wiser and resourceful, and maybe they’ll be able to do things they couldn’t have done back then.”

The Centre for Social Innovation is a coworking space, community centre and incubator for people who are changing the world. We provide you with the spaces, relationships and knowledge you need to turn ideas into impact. Find out more at 

Want to discover what CSI Regent Park can offer you? Come to our an info session:

  • Tuesday, November 20, 2012 – 11:30am
  • Tuesday, December 4, 2012 – 11:30am
  • Tuesday, December 18, 2012 – 11:30am

Or, drop by for an event. See our complete event listings here:


Celebrating 21 Years of Community Arts Education

Taking a look back at ArtHeart’s history

By Adi Baker

This year, ArtHeart has been celebrating their twenty-first anniversary. Back when they first got started, Regent Park was a very different place. For one thing, they were the first arts organization to take root in the neighbourhood. Over the years, their philosophy and conviction has never wavered. They teach art and provide nutritious meals to their participants, encouraging both creativity and self-empowerment. Through the programs they deliver, participants are offered a supportive environment in which they can create and learn, building self-esteem and life skills.

Linocut print from the very first ArtHeart exhibition at Jet Fuel.

Linocut print from the very first ArtHeart exhibition at Jet Fuel.

A big move always encourages you to take stock. And for ArtHeart, they found an opportunity to use their annual exhibition at Jet Fuel Coffee (Shop 519 Parliament St.) to take a look back at their venerable history.

During the summer of 2012, the ArtHeart Community Art Centre’s staff and volunteers spent their time gathering the artifacts of the centre’s history and moving them into their new home at Daniels Spectrum. At summer’s end, freshly unpacked in their new space, studio manager Timothy Svirklys and board co-chair Sandi Wong could be found in the new studio. Eager participants were filling the space, brimming with excitement and ready to help launch the first day of programming in over two months. Although Tim and Sandi looked weary from their weeks of preparation, from their broad smiles you could not mistake how happy they were to have everyone back in the studio.

Typically, the work for the annual exhibition is completed over the course of the entire year. But with the big move, a retrospective seemed more fitting. “Current participants will see our history with this retrospective show and that ArtHeart is still a vibrant part of the community,” said Sandi, “and the Jet Fuel patrons and owners will see the results of their support through the years.”


Instructor Dave Lapp helps the children create artwork at ArtHeart.

Instructor Dave Lapp helps the children create artwork at ArtHeart.

ArtHeart, All Grown Up showcased work produced over the years by participants in the children and youth programs. The annual show got its start during the early years of ArtHeart with instructor Dave Lapp. Jet Fuel Coffee offered the walls of the coffeehouse for an exhibition of the kids’ work. “I have been with ArtHeart for almost twenty years and remember how proud the young artists from first Jet Fuel Show were to have their own show,” said Tim. That first show showcased a series of linocut prints. Everyone set out to create their art pieces—brainstorming, sketching, carving and printing. Throughout the whole process, participants learned the rewards of dedicating themselves to a specific goal. When it was done, they knew they had developed a number of new skills: planning ahead, patience, and other essentials to the creative process. When the show opened to the public, all the pieces were for sale. Since that first show, every year has been a success. The show always sells out. The kids are proud of their work and the community comes out to support them. 

ArtHeart Community Art Centre is a registered charity, funded thorough the generosity of foundations and private donors and is located on the second floor of Daniels Spectrum.

The children’s program runs every Tuesday and Wednesday from 3:30pm to 5:00pm including free art instruction with all materials and a healthy snack.

The adult program runs every Wednesday from 5:30 to 8:30pm and Thursday 12:00 to 3:00pm includes free art instruction, with all materials and a hot meal included.

ArtHeart is working to increase their programmes to the full week. Watch for News and Events on their blog at