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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cambodian break-dancers to visit Philadelphia

By Robert Moran
Inquirer Staff Writer

They are being called the first generation of hip-hop stars in Cambodia. Some were street kids from homeless families. Others were abandoned or orphaned.

They are Tiny Toones, a troupe of break-dancers - B-Boys and B-Girls in street lingo - and seven representatives are to arrive in Philadelphia today as part of their first tour of the United States.

How they got to Philly is a story with roots in Phnom Penh and in Long Beach, Calif., and involves a notorious street gang, YouTube, and the Cambodia Association of Greater Philadelphia.

Tiny Toones was founded by Tuy "KK" Sobil, 30, a Cambodian who was born in a Thai refugee camp and grew up in Long Beach, where, as a teen, he became a popular break-dancer.

He also became a member of the Crips gang, and eventually was incarcerated on an armed-robbery conviction.

Afterward, he was deported to Cambodia. He found himself living in a poor country he had never been in before.

As he tried to find his way in Phnom Penh, his western apparel and many tattoos captivated local youths.

"The word got out with the kids that KK knew how to break dance and that he was a famous break-dancer," said Mia-lia Kiernan, 25, youth advocacy program coordinator for the Cambodia Association of Greater Philadelphia.

KK told them he wasn't interested.

"He was already pretty depressed about being in Cambodia in the first place, as he had to leave his family and everything, but eventually gave in," she said.

"The Cambodian kids are finding hip-hop as a voice to express their feelings and their stories," said Vyreak Sovann, 28, a Cambodian American who helped organize the Philadelphia part of the tour.

Sovann, who like Sobil was born in a Thai refugee camp and came to United States as a toddler, discovered Tiny Toones on YouTube while doing Internet research about his Cambodian heritage.

"I was so moved by it, because I saw these kids break dance in Cambodia without shoes, and I was like, 'Wow!' " said Sovann, a former break-dancer.

At first, Sobil taught a handful of children in his apartment. As Tiny Toones gained recognition, it got funding from an international aid organization called Bridges Across Borders to open a multi-service center.

"We have helped Tiny Toones develop a child-protection and education program that has benefited thousands of vulnerable children and youth in Phnom Penh," said David Pred, director of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, in an e-mail from Cambodia.

"It is a shame and somewhat ironic that KK was unable to obtain a U.S. visa to be there with the kids," Pred wrote.

The Tiny Toones multi-service center offers classes in English and Khmer, HIV/AIDS awareness, and job and computer skills.

And, of course, lessons in break dancing.

Kiernan has been following KK and Tiny Toones for four years, and she got to meet Sobil on one of her annual trips to visit her mother in Cambodia.

In fall, she saw an article in the New York Times about KK and Tiny Toones. It mentioned simply that the club had been invited to the United States.

"I e-mailed KK right away and said, well, if you're going to be in the U.S., why don't you come to Philly?" Kiernan recalled.

Kiernan was paired with Sovann, and they have helped to organize a series of performances, fund-raisers and workshops with local break-dancers.

Tiny Toones' first appearance will be at a fund-raiser at noon today at the Khmer Art Gallery at 319 N. 11th St.

The troupe of teenagers includes (using their B-Boy names) Fresh, Homey, T-boy, Khay, Suicide, and K'dep, a rapper. The lone B-Girl is Diamond.

Kiernan yesterday planned to pick up the Tiny Toones in New York and bring them to Philadelphia today on a Chinatown bus.

During their visit here, which will last until Wednesday morning, the dancers will be staying at Kiernan's South Philadelphia home.

"My whole living room is going to be one big air mattress," she said, laughing.

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