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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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Tuy Sobil, a sinewy 30-year-old with a ponytail, a pierced eyebrow, and gangland-style Goth tattoos, is watching over a group of excited kids crowded around a linoleum mat laid out in a city park. To the beat of a 1980s American hip-hop remix emanating from a boombox, one of Mr. Tuy's protégés, "Floater," lets it rip – twisting, turning, and spinning like an animated marionette. Cheers erupt from a crowd of curious onlookers.

Then it is Tuy's turn in this Sunday break-dancing battle.

Sporting a rapper's stocking cap despite the humid heat, he does a series of "pikes," "flares," and "butterfly kicks," slumping to the ground, wheezing, when he's finished.

"I'm old and rusty, but I need to do it for the kids," he pants.

Once a gifted break-dance wannabe in Long Beach, Calif., Tuy has lately resurrected his old passion – to help save Cambodian street kids from the sort of dead-end detour he took.

And the kids, many neglected, some orphaned, lionize him for it.

"KK looks after us," says 14-year-old Floater, aka Chea Sokchen. "I don't want to be just a street kid," he adds with boyish zeal. "I want to become a b-boy [break dancerr]."

That's the career Tuy feels he should have pursued, too. Instead, wanting to "be cool," Tuy – alias "KK," gang-style initials for "Crazy Crip," – joined the notorious Crips gang in California and dropped out of school. An armed robbery conviction when he was 18 sent his life spiralling downward. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1977 to escapees from the Khmer Rouge killing fields and taken to the US as a tot, Tuy never became a US citizen, and the felony conviction was followed by a decade in jail and immigration detention centers.

He was deported in 2004 – the coda to what he now knows were misplaced aspirations.


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