AS MC SERCH's "Back to the Grill" thumps loudly in the background, Tarrell Edwards, a junior at South Philly High, starts break-dancing on the rolled-out white linoleum-tile floor. He performs a handstand, cocks his legs at an angle and freezes in midair as other students cheer him on.
David "DK" Kruth, a junior at Central High School known for his "DK Drop," break-dances, then for a second, he's upside down, stops midmove, then drops to the tile floor.
The teens - blacks, Asians and Latinos - come to this after-school Hip Hop Heritage program run by the nonprofit Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC) at the Academy at Palumbo in South Philly to do what they love. Some break-dance (or in their words, "b-boy"), some learn to deejay, others make mini-movies or record songs.
What they get as fringe benefits are friendships with students from different backgrounds, a support group away from home and a safe haven from the at-times messed-up streets.
'Keeps me grounded'
Benyaamin "Ben" Barnes, 18, said he used to hang out and "do dumb stuff," like smoke weed and fight.
But through the Hip Hop Heritage program, "I figured out who my real friends are. They're like my family now. At the end of the day, I always have them to turn to."
Barnes, who said he dropped out of Sayre High School as a senior at the end of last year, plans to attend a Philly charter school in the fall to get his diploma. A few weeks ago, he began interning at SEAMAAC's South Philly office, handling administrative tasks.
"I have this thing about authority," he said one day while riding the Market-Frankford Line back to his home in West Philly after the hip-hop program. "So if someone pulls their authority on me, I start an argument," he said, explaining why he left Sayre. He said he and a "teacher would argue, I would start cursing. I would just leave the room."
Now, "my main focus in life is breaking [break-dancing]. That's what keeps me grounded," he said.
Barnes' dad, Ryan McGee, 35, who works as a plumber, knows how the SEAMAAC program has changed his son.
"He was a badass," the dad said. Now, because of the hip-hop program, "he's got a level of responsibility. It shapes you up."
"I respect the program because it gives them the chance to do what they want to do. It seemed at first, no one wanted to help them." The program gives students "a place to flourish," McGee said.
Barnes, who lived part of his younger life with his mother in New Jersey and Delaware, but returned to his West Philly roots a couple of years ago to live with his dad, stepmom and baby sister, wants to be an EMT. But that's just to pay the bills, because he's got the b-boy skills.
He's obsessed. When he first got home that day, he put in a flash drive that Joe Son, a SEAMAAC dance instructor, gave to him, with video clips of old-school break-dancers.
"I get inspiration" from them, he said, studying their moves.
Connecting urban youth
Kruth, a Cambodian-American born in South Philly, took turns break-dancing with other students at the Academy at Palumbo one recent humid afternoon. Breathing heavily, a little sweaty, he said that breaking and the SEAMAAC program "got me out of trouble. It's a stress reliever."
He used to hang out with friends who were in gangs, having gone to schools where fights were a daily occurrence. He didn't want to talk about what he did with his gang friends. "It was all in the past," said Kruth, 17.
Since participating in the hip-hop program, "I had no time to hang out with my friends." Now, he has formed new bonds and "found positive friends."
And the students in the program have positive role models. Son, 28, a third-generation Korean-American who teaches break-dancing at SEAMAAC, is a father figure to many, and Candy Bloise, another dance instructor, is treated as their mom.
"He's stern, but he loves you," Barnes said of Son, who pushes them hard, not only to repeat break-dance moves, but to do handstand walks, push-ups, sit-ups, lunges.
As for Bloise, who hails from New York, she said, "I'm always like, 'Make sure you go to college. Breaking is always here.' "
A version of the hip-hop program started about three years ago, but it's been housed at the Academy at Palumbo since July. Some members of the program's HardKnockz crew, founded by Barnes, will be performing at SEAMAAC's 27th anniversary celebration June 9.
About 115 students, ages 14 to 18, are enrolled in the program, and on any given day, about 30 to 50 show up.
"It is a way to bring out the artistic and creative outlets" of the teens, said Kevin Ramirez, SEAMAAC's youth-programs director. And it brings together students from across the city who share common interests in youth and hip-hop culture. Here, they don't have "problems, -isms and schisms," he said.
A lot of the older youths had been involved in programs that "did not spark their imagination," said Thoai Nguyen, SEAMAAC's executive director.
With the hip-hop program, "they can't stop coming. We have incredible retention rates."
SEAMAAC, whose core focus is to help refugees and immigrants, branched out to the hip-hop culture to connect to youths. "Our program at the time was more of your mainstream program offering homework help, sports and athletics, ESL [English as a second language] and tutoring," Nguyen said.
"We still have all of that. But we realized that in order to retain or maintain interest in people, we had to come up with a programmatic idea that spoke to young people in the urban environment."
Although the attacks on Asian students at South Philly High in December 2009 spotlighted racial tensions between some black and Asian students at the school, students in the Hip Hop Heritage program didn't feel it because they were already good friends with students of other races, Nguyen said.
Edwards, 18, the South Philly High junior, said he helped some of the Asian immigrant students after the attacks. "I helped give them advice, and if they wanted to dance, I brought them here," he said in between his turns break-dancing.
"To me, it doesn't matter whether you're Asian, black, white or Rican. If you like to dance, come out here and dance. You're always welcome here."