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Young dancers open minds by spinning on their heads


Wes Pentz, better known as DJ Diplo, records a live stream of a group Tiny Toones kids through his laptop's webcam. Bejan Siavoshy

While residents of Street 460 in Tuol Tompoung flocked home as dusk settled last Wednesday night, Tiny Toones founder Tuy Sobil, better known by his dance moniker “KK”, sat cross-armed with a widening grin on his face as local kids filed into the NGO’s youth centre.

The trail of kids added to the clamour of an ever-growing group of onlookers that were enlivened by the sight of b-boys and b-girls (breakdancing boys and girls) putting shoulder to linoleum, displaying a their breakdancing repertoires as Philadelphia’s DJ Diplo spun break beats and tracks from his ongoing collaboration project – Major Lazer – with English DJ Switch during a dance session at the centre that all who participated agreed was “for the kids”.

Before the session began, Wes Pentz, Diplo’s “government name”, spent some time taking in the whole scene and using his laptop’s webcam to broadcast a live stream of what a day at the Tinytoones main office and youth centre was like. Kids eager to showcase their respective talents to the visitors led Diplo around from the production studio, where Khmer hip-hop for the centre’s next CD release was being crafted, to the practice areas where breakdancers spun on their backs, hands, shoulders, and heads with ease.

As needle touched vinyl, hand-clapping rang out, and dancers took to the floor. A team of kids that will soon be bound for Singapore to participate in a regional b-boy competition gave the audience a taste of what is in store for the opposition, and a b-girl named Diamond hailing from Phnom Penh showed a smooth dancing style peppered with power moves set to the beat of The Spencer Davis Group’s infectious 1967 hit and break-beat staple, “I’m a Man”.

Street 460 is no stranger to the revels of excited children and loud music, of which Tiny Toones is the epicentre. Whether it’s a DJ’ing class being taught in the organisation’s production studio or kids standing in a circle waiting to hone their breakdancing skills, the lively atmosphere at Tiny Toones is a direct result of the fervour the children have for what they are learning – a display not lost on the Philly DJ when he first stepped through the centre’s doors.

“Kids doing stuff like this leads to breaking new ground,” said Diplo, elaborating on the benefits of supporting organisations like Tiny Toones. “If I am not doing it myself or not doing something music-wise, I am playing the music these kids are making. Even if it’s not these kids specifically, I am always looking for new things kids are doing, and if I can help support them, it helps me do more exciting things as a DJ, so there is a back-and-forth, you know.”

Tiny Toones’ founder KK started the organisation over six years ago with a similar goal in mind. He says the group is there for children to learn that they are not limited by their past experiences or by what could seem to be a limited number of options for their future.

It began when a group of kids found out KK had been heavily into breakdancing between the ages of eight and 13. Eager to learn for themselves, their dogged approach wore down his initial reluctance, which KK said was brought on by the fact that he had not performed a breakdancing move in almost 15 years. In the space of a year, though, what started out as nine kids being taught by KK at his house ballooned to roughly 700 jockeying for space that barely housed 50. KK then trained as a counselor and sought to expand the initiative in order to meet the growing demand for breakdancing among the youths and to provide an environment where they could discover their hidden potential.

“We get kids who come in here and think that, just because they are poor or come from poor backgrounds, they can’t do certain things,” explains KK, and in seeing what opportunities breakdancing and hip-hop can open up for them, they see they can become anything they want.

Diamond has been a beneficiary of the Tiny Toones ethos, overcoming difficulties as a woman participating in a predominantly male pastime – from initial confidence issues that came with being the first female to start learning how to breakdance under KK, to the discouragement she faced from her mother and a female friend.

“My mother doesn’t like me breakdancing or hip-hop dancing. ‘You are a girl, not a boy, why do you want to dance like this?’ she would ask me. I had a friend who would tell me the same thing, suggesting that I shouldn’t continue what I was enjoying so much,” said Diamond. “Everyday, my mum and my friend would tell me, ‘stop, stop, stop, stop, stop’. Still, I went to KK and practiced breakdancing every day for two years.”

The nay-saying eventually stopped when Diamond’s efforts paid off and she started to receive a salary for teaching breakdancing at Tinytoones. She now has 20 female students, volunteers as an HIV outreach worker with Tiny Toones and four other NGOs, and travelled to the United States last August where she performed with other breakdancers from Tiny Toones in five different cities across America. She also takes on the personal task of helping her female students overcome any difficulties they may face by participating in breakdancing.

Tiny Toones’ efforts to help the youth have not gone unnoticed outside of Cambodia. With regular visitors from media, music and breakdancing personalities from around the globe, KK feels that giving the kids at Tiny Toones exposure to different people with different experiences is a way to encourage and nurture the new generation of Cambodian youth.

KK said, “There are different kinds of people that can teach our kids in different ways ... everyone has a gift for something, but you have to pass
it on to the next generation so they can learn it and do it better.”

Diplo expressed the same sentiment, even after explaining that Major Lazer, who was playing later that evening at Pontoon, was “the most extreme party kind of stuff”.

“If I can have the chance to travel to Cambodia and make money DJing, the least I can do is kind of help some people do some stuff themselves,” Diplo said, speaking about supporting Tiny Toones. “I'm old, I am 30 years old, and these kids are, what, eight to 15? Hopefully, in five, 10 years’ time they will be doing things that really put Cambodia on the map.”

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