I knew, I knew, I knew there was something there.
You hear about an organization: Tiny Toones. Founded by a deported Khmer-American, it works to improve the lives and futures of Phnom Penh’s street kids—through, primarily, breakdance. You don’t breakdance. You’re not Cambodian and you don’t even really listen to hip-hop anymore. But there’s something about it, something about it…
I’ve recently figured this out about myself: that things I should, by all logic, experience as intense emotions, vivid memories and blazing-eyed convictions, I experience instead as far-away feelings, a vague awareness, a dim hunch in the sunlight of my consciousness (oh silhouette, oh silhouette). And so it was with Tiny Toones.
I went to their album release party last Saturday. In their four years of existence, Tiny Toones has grown to encompass additional programs: computer literacy, Khmer and English literacy, harm reduction and music. The release of their first full-length hip-hop album was the end result of that new program.
The event was held on the rooftop of the Meta House, the minimalist white German cultural center. Like the show I’d gone to two nights prior, the crowd was a healthy mix of ages and locals/expats. And like the previous show, the kids behind the mike and turnatables all looked totally hip-hop American. It reminded me of being at a Youth Speaks event.
And so there were speeches and raffles and auctions and performances. They also showed some videos, including a recording of the performace that had won the organization a recent TED Award. Participants had developed narrative breakdances that depicted defining elements of their life stories (oh undimness, oh spotlight).
A girl depicted being abused, two boys violent robbery. They’d be in black for these, at the end of each, they’d shed their black shirts, under which there were white shirts, and they’d join each other, a representation of Tiny Toones.
They do one for addiction. Boys crouched around a make-shift pipe (oh soda bottle, oh tin foil). The kids in white pass by, and every time they take another boy in black with them. Finally there is one boy, in one spotlight, alone on the stage.
He does a strange dance, beautiful dance. His shoulder arch up like he’s attached to strings (oh puppet child, oh puppet child)—he rises, chest first and lungs full—and then drops back down, as though whatever held those strings (oh God-like fingers, oh typewriter of fate) had dropped him suddenly—and he crashes to the floor, the bottom, or what appears to be the bottom—in real life there’s always further you can go, downer and downer and maybe even death isn’t the basement (oh elevator of addiction, oh wobble of the cablewires)—maybe the dance continues on after that, into that, souls arching and crashing endlessly, winglessly.
Anyway, he carries on like that—spotlight and a bare stage, rising and falling around the homemade pipe—and I think: Well, isn’t that just it? Isn’t that the dance of it?
And it surprises me how much I relate to it. Though it shouldn’t. Because even though it would outwardly appear that I have even less in common with this kid dancing, a Cambodian streetkid, than oh, say, Charlies Sheen—you strip away the details, the circumstances—you strip away the lights and setting and the props—and isn’t that all you’re ever left with? Isn’t that all we (oh puppet children, oh puppet children) ever really do?—a lone black dance on a barren stage?
I smiled and thought: Of course, of course, of course.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—William Butler Yeats