Vietnamese hip hop enthusiast inspires Southeast Asian children

By Hai Hien   August 16, 2020 | 06:00 am PT
Beyond borders and language barriers, b-boy Tuan teaches refugee kids across Southeast Asia the healing art of dance.

On weekend night, in a room on Hanoi's Nguyen Khanh Toan Street, around 20 children wait expectantly.

Suddenly, there is music and a man appears, dancing and doing headspins. The children are thrilled and cannot stop cheering.

The man is Nguyen Anh Tuan, 31, who has pursued his passion for hip-hop dancing at all costs. He now teaches children how to dance.

Hip-hop came to Tuan when he was an eleventh grader. Watching a performance at his school, the boy was impressed by the moves and Michael Jackson's famous moonwalk.

"How can people be as flexible as that?" Tuan asked himself.

Tuan teaches dancing for children at a refugee camp in Thailand in 2018. Photo courtesy of Tuan.

Tuan teaches children at a refugee camp in Thailand in 2018. Photo courtesy of Tuan.

The 17-year-old Tuan surfed the internet for information and tried to learn the moves he saw. After a week, his basic skills gave him the confidence to register for a performance at his high school that won him a lot of applause. He was hooked. He was prepared to dance wherever, whenever.

After finishing school, he entered university, choosing IT as his major, but the passion for hip-hop was not dimmed. He founded a dance club at his university, continuing to learn from the internet and exchanging his skills at several places.

To get some professional training, sophomore Tuan paid VND100 million ($4,304) for a three-month dancing course in an art school in the U.S. But when his visa application was rejected, he fell into a depression.

After a month of sleepless nights, Tuan began looking for a hip-hop class in Vietnam. Some people told him to go to the park in front of the Lenin statue in Hanoi to meet "a lot of talents." Tuan followed their advice, hoping to find himself a hip-hop dance teacher.

In the meanwhile, he had entered third year at his university and went to a company where he got an idea of what his future would be like as an IT professional.

"I was not born for a life of sitting in front of a computer, I need more colors and connection with people," he texted his friend after that visit. The very next morning, with encouragement from the friend, Tuan sent a leave application to the university.

Since his parents would be sad if they knew, he locked himself inside his room and only ventured out for dancing training with his friends. He stayed at home during the day, went out in the evening, and returned when his parents slept.

But it was not too long before they found out.

The mother burst into tears while his father angrily asked what he would do for a living.

"I will learn dancing on the streets," Tuan responded.

On the following evening, when he came home at midnight, the father used his martial arts skills to knock his son down and left without saying a word.

Later, his mother left and came home in the middle of a rainy night, begging him to return to university.

"Please go to school again. Dancing will spoil you," she told Tuan.

Feeling lost and depressed at making his parents anxious, Tuan began to engage in physical abuse, hurting himself with objects on hand. He felt like he was at a dead end. In fact, he even thought about ending his life, finding no answers to simple questions. Was he wrong in quitting the university? What should he do now?

In the first year after he stopped going to college, Tuan lost all connection with his family even though they were still under the same roof. Slowly he pulled himself back from his depression and decided he’d try and prove that he was right.

He focused intensely on practicing and spent up to 12 hours per day dancing. After a year, he won the first prize in a national hip-hop contest. But it did not make his mother happy.

Tuan (left in the front) and his friends in Street Art For Street Kids. Photo courtesy of Tuan.

Tuan (left in the front) and his friends in "Street Art For Street Kids". Photo courtesy of Tuan.

Tuan went on to win dozens of hip-hop dancing contests and became more and more popular as he did. Then he decided to do pass on his passion for dancing to children, and became a teacher.

Passion intensifies

In 2012, when he was teaching autistic children at the park in front of the Lenin statue in Hanoi, a man came and introduced himself as Jenny Snell. Snell was for street artists across Southeast Asia for a charity program.

"Would you like to teach dancing to refugee children? I have seen that you are very patient with children," he told Tuan, who was 23 then. Tuan did not hesitate to say yes.

In September 2013, Tuan arrived at a forest in Pattaya, Thailand, where hundreds of refugee children lived. That was his introduction to the "Street Art For Street Kids," program, which offered street children dance lessons and a sense of community.

Every day, Tuan and his friends traveled hundreds of kilometers to schools and other areas where refugees were concentrated and performed for around 50 minutes before teaching children some dance and acrobatics moves.

"Those were lessons without languages. We used eyes, music and heart to connect with others," Tuan recalled.

The happy faces and smiles of the children showed that at least for some time, they were able to forget the poverty and misery of their lives. Some of them had even been hired to kill other people and had otherwise been mistreated badly.

When he finally left the area in a tuktuk, the children ran after him, calling out in their mother tongue.

"I understand what they were calling out, because that is the language of the heart; translation is unnecessary," Tuan said.

Tuan's group has met tens of thousands of children and shared time with them, including having many meals together. Over four years after his Thailand trip, Tuan visited Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines. The trips have made him realize that he is luckier than a lot of people.

"That is why I have to live in a way that deserves my passion," he said.

After the trips, he also mended his relationship with the family, opening his heart to them. He did something he had never done before – told them he loved them, without any embarrassment.

The son’s honesty worked. His parents accepted his choice of profession and his passion. They stopped complaining and now encourage him.

"They do not compliment me to my face, but I know they are proud of what I have done for the society," Tuan said.

The trips abroad and opportunity to work with underprivileged kids helped Tuan to find his calling. Since 2018, he has inspired many youngsters in his dancing group to take part in numerous trips to refugee areas across Southeast Asia and support more children.

As a hip-hop teacher for children, Tuan wants people to change their views on about dancing to a highly beneficial activity.

Ngo Tu Huy, a former member of Tuan's group who has taken part in trips across Southeast Asia, said Tuan is a legend in their circles for his ability to inspire others and to work well with children.

"He has a special energy. He not only teaches dancing, but also gives lessons of life, inspiring many people," Huy said.

In the last two years, Tuan has collaborated with several non-government organizations to give free dance lessons for poor and homeless children, including those residing under Hanoi’s Long Bien Bridge and in orphanages. He also organizes classes, creating a stable source of income for about 30 teachers in his group.

"Should we quit university to follow our passion?" some students keep asking him.

His answer never varies. "If you are truly passionate about something and dare to pay the price for choosing it, all roads lead to the destination."

go to top