Boys and girls flit energetically between classrooms at Tiny Toones’ new Chbar Ampov centre in the impoverished outskirts of Phnom Penh. The sound of electro hip-hop resonates out of one room, while Me and You by RnB queen Cassie drifts out of another room filled with children learning a new dance routine.
Tiny Toones is an NGO that helps at-risk, marginalised Cambodian children through education programs and arts classes rooted in hip-hop culture, such as break dancing.
Since its founding in 2007, the group has become a staple in Phnom Penh’s urban arts scene, with student-dancers regularly headlining events like last month’s Tiger Translate music festival. The success of the program, and an increased enrollment in classes, had in recent years put pressure on the organization to expand.
To meet this demand, Tiny Toone’s new Chbar Ampov centre, which has more classrooms and ground space than their old Stop Bokor spot, opened in late January and has since seen a surge of eager young faces wanting a piece of the action.
“Our new home is amazing,” Romi Grossberg, Tiny Toones Management Adviser, said.
“We are exactly where we should be, right in the slums where the need is the highest. We have incredible opportunity for growth.”
The new centre now caters for more than 200 children, with more rocking up each week, while the old centre only saw a wavering 150 children.
Even so, the group’s popularity among local youth is hard to keep up with.
Despite the new centre’s expanding potential, Grossberg admits that due to the increase in the number of participating children, they have had to stop inviting youth during their outreach programs – an initiative they have been running since 2005.
In the outreach, a selection of Tiny Toones staff and volunteers regularly visited at-risk youth and families in their communities and invited them to visit the Centre.
“We haven’t turned any kids away and we won’t, but we have had to stop telling them to come and visit us, we can’t invite more of them in,” Grossberg said adding that they were not worried that this would cause any problems.
Tiny Toones give Khmer, English, art, computer, break dancing and music classes. There was an average of 50 children per Khmer and English class, with one teacher.
“All the kids want to come to learn how to break dance,” said Long Den, coordinator of the non-formal education program. “But we tell them they have to have [educational] lessons first,” such as English or health education
Alongside Tiny Toones’ success in numbers comes an opportunity for its break-dancers to tour in New Zealand in April.
A crew of 12 dancers, the same ones who toured Australia in January, will lead 10 days of interactive workshops with youth in Auckland.
“They loved Australia, it was a big success,” Grossberg said, adding that the group is now raising funds to support the New Zealand venture.
“The Australia tour really set us back, but it was worth it to give the kids the opportunity.”
Flex, 17, will be one of the dancers on the tour. He said he was very excited to go, despite dreading the plane ride.
“I don’t like being in the airplane a long time. But I really want to go. I’ve never been there. I want to see the country, the people and perform,” he said, adding that if the visa application was not successful, he would cry.