The breakdancers of Bassac

The breakdancers of Bassac

Each evening around 6:30 pm, Sobil Tuy's bare-bones apartment deep in the Keo Preah Phloeung community begins to fill up with dozens of exuberant, youthful neighbors. T-shirts hung on the wall serve as the lone decorations and hip-hop music beats from a small stereo. The atmosphere is one of casual chaos.

Twenty-eight-year-old Tuy, who goes by the nickname "KK," is the founder of Tiny Toones - Cambodia's first dance-troupe devoted to the decidedly "old school" art of breakdancing. It's an athletic, irresistible dance style that evolved as part of the hip-hop movement in the South Bronx of New York City during the late 1970s and reached the height of popularity in the early 1980s.

Founded in July, the group now has nearly 60 members, and has begun to attract attention around Phnom Penh. The Tiny Toones dancers have performed for several audiences in Sorya Mall, and recently showed off their frenetic footwork to honor International Human Rights Day at the Olympic Stadium.

Smiling, KK glances around the room. "We do not have much in here," he said, nodding at the thin mattress doubling as an athletic mat on the hard tile floor. "But every evening these kids light up my room, and my life."

It is the hope of KK and his two assistants that the illumination is reciprocal. The Tonle Bassac squatters' community serves as a bleak backdrop for childhood; drug and alcohol abuse is rife among young people there. KK said he founded Tiny Toones to share his passion for hip-hop culture with Cambodian youth in need of enriching activities and positive reinforcement. He also uses his post to inveigh against drug abuse and bad behavior.

"When I come here I feel happy and comfortable," said a 10-year-old local who calls himself Pose. "I always feel safe."

According to KK, most of the children who visit his makeshift dance studio - to participate or observe - have serious family problems and no positive male role models.

KK himself learned to breakdance 17 years ago in Long Beach, California, where he was a member of an infamous American street gang called "The Crips." Repeated trouble with the law got him deported by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Services. He returned to his native Cambodia in 2003.

"I established Tiny Toones for two reasons," he said. "First, breakdancing helps keep these kids out of trouble. [But my involvement in Tiny Toones also] illustrates that not all returnees are 'bad apples.' Many of us are contributing to society."

Evidence that hip-hop music and culture are leaving an increasingly indelible mark on Cambodia's youth culture is everywhere. Some local pop stars like Preap Sovath have even adopted hip-hop personas in their music videos. In "Boom Boom," his latest video, Sovath is shown wearing baggy jeans and riding low in an imposing black SUV - just like the ones American rappers drive.

Pose - soft-spoken, warm and humble - was one of KK's first Cambodian students.

"[Breakdancing] is a beautiful art," he said excitedly. "It makes me happy, and helps me relax."

Five months ago, Tiny Toones consisted of nine dancers. Today, the troupe's 57 members are equipped with their own shirts and follow a strict practice schedule.

One young girl, nicknamed Twinkle, said she wants to be a "b-girl," or female break dancer, when she grows up. "I want to be a professional dancer," she said. "My father is an artist, too."

© 2024 Phatry Derek Pan