In exile, a former gang member finds a reason to dance
Deported to Cambodia for criminal convictions, Tuy Sobil saves street kids – and himself – with break dance
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Yet he craved acceptance, and his daredevil stunts in break dance – an improvisational street ballet of jerky moves and acrobatics – earned him accolades. In one face-off, Tuy reminisces, he even bested "Pose," the neighborhood's finest "breaker."Skip to next paragraph
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Today, there is another "Pose" in Tuy's life – a bashful, diminutive AIDS orphan with delicate features and dyed hair. Inspired by TV clips of foreign break dancers, the 13-year-old HIV-positive boy and his friends approached Tuy to teach them. The "American" brushed them off; but they persisted. And Tuy's difficult transition in exile became life-transforming as he developed the Tiny Toones dance troupe.
These days Tuy's Chinese shophouse-style quarters in the city's Tonle Sap neighborhood double as a makeshift community center. Upstairs in an unfurnished room, dozens of street kids gather every evening for break dance practice.
The group has 600 members. Drug users and glue sniffers aren't welcome unless they clean up first. Tiny Toones are drilled in discipline, honesty, and solidarity. They also learn English from volunteers – other deportees from the US.
"This is many kids' only chance to stay out of trouble," says Hin Roatnak, another former Crip from central California, who says he was deported for a gang murder and now helps out with the group. "Sometimes, we see kids eating leftovers from garbage bins, so we bring them here and give them food and a shower."
Tuy has also "adopted" five homeless teens, who sleep in the hall outside his cramped bedroom. In his room is a photographic tableau of his 6-year-old son in California, whom he may never see again.
Tuy's open-door policy has its dangers. Recently, his new stereo and laptop were stolen – both cherished possessions earned from his $400-a-month salary as an antidrugs and AIDS campaigner for a foreign nongovernmental agency . But Tuy doesn't blame the kids. "It could have been the smokers next door."
His legs shriveled by polio, Ean An sits slumped in his makeshift aluminum wheelchair, watching his deaf but able-bodied friends show off their new moves at a recreational program sponsored by a British charity in Kampot Province, 100 miles south of Phnom Penh.
He doesn't languish there for long, though. Tuy coaxes the boy out of his wheelchair and challenges him to a handstand competition. An wins it on his third try. Tuy then shows him some "power moves" he can do without using his legs.
"In our culture, people think we're of no use," explains Ponh Denh, a 21-year-old ninth-grade student in a rusty wheelchair. (In Buddhist Cambodia, disability is often associated with bad karma incurred by wrongs done in previous lives.) "But if we try," he says, with pride, "even handicapped people like us can dance."
So can orphans. Tuy holds regular dance classes in a Phnom Penh orphanage where the youngest "b-boy," a 2-year-old, is already an avid spinner.
"On the surface, it's only break dance, but all these kids need is someone to motivate them," says Dara Chan, a Khmer-American student from Michigan volunteering at Tiny Toones.
"KK is very charismatic, and the way he plays he has the heart of a 10-year-old," adds Mr. Chan. "Kids like to jump on his back and play with him all day. He's like a big brother to them. They need him."
Tuy needs the kids, too.
"This is my home now and Tiny Toones are my family," he says. "When they cry, it hurts me. I'll do my best to help them."