On Sunday afternoons, Ka, Sunny, David, Ny, Benjamin and Tony come to Koo’s Art Cafe to dance: to do head spins. Leg flares. And dizzying footwork.

For this group of high school boys--mostly Asian and Latino--break-dancing is a distraction from the toughest streets in Santa Ana.

“I was hanging with a gang before,” says Tony Trejo, 17, “and then I found out about Koo’s. Ever since then, I’ve just been dancing.”


Trejo is among about 30 members of the break-dancing troupe 17th Parallel--named in a nod to Koo’s location at 1505 N. Main St. near 17th Street.

Koo’s, once a thriving Chinese takeout, is a refurbished two-story 1912 Victorian bungalow, and a magnet for kids. As many as 30,000 visit in a year: to hear music, check out local art, get informed on issues or just hang out.

“We’ve realized that the real disease among kids today is boredom. But at Koo’s they’re so busy they don’t have time to be bored,” says founder Dennis Lluy, 26.

Lluy started Koo’s with $8,000 in 1994 after the former tenant--Koo’s Chop Suey--folded. He saved the building from condemnation, retained the eatery’s name and opened the doors to neighborhood kids.

In time, they found the place, sometimes after having to convince their parents the neighborhood was safe at night. Within a few years, kids were jamming Koo’s.

A couple of years ago, among those who came to hang out was a trio of displaced break-dancers. Under the direction of Seth Wilder, 29, the group has grown in numbers and strength.


“With an expressive dance like break-dancing,” Wilder says, “the movements convey the thoughts and the challenges of these kids’ everyday lives. They are all just trying to survive in a bad situation.”

In addition to going to school, many of the dancers hold down jobs to help support their families.

Trejo, a senior with Horizon Independent Studies--a county-operated alternative education program--lives with his dad and younger brother in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Santa Ana. He says that, like other adults, his dad doesn’t understand his style of dancing.

“They treat break-dancing like it was a crime,” he says. “They don’t take it seriously.”

But he shrugs it off. He knows break dancing--with its sheer physicality and discipline--is as tough as any sport. And that it can take him places.

The 17th Parallel has already performed at a hip-hop event at Cal State Fullerton, at a fund-raiser at the Discovery Museum of Orange County and at the Long Beach and Los Angeles convention centers.

“I hope I can keep dancing,” Trejo says. “Maybe even go to a proper school of dance or something.”