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The universal appeal of Apsara


While Cambodians are used to seeing the influence of foreign culture around them, it is not so often that we see a foreigner fully immerse themselves in Cambodian culture. Many foreigners visit Cambodia’s tourist sites or cultural destinations, but 23-year-old Bobbie Bigby has taken her interest to a whole new level with her study of Apsara dancing.

The young American woman has journeyed to Cambodia on a Fulbright scholarship to study Cambodia’s most famous traditional dance. The Apsara dancers, who are often thought to show the unique movements and behaviours of a Khmer lady, inspired Bigby to explore and define the term Apsara on a study trip immediately on the heels of her graduation from college.

At the Apsara Arts Association, where she has been studying the ancient art form, she has been given her own Khmer identity. “My name is Bopha. It is such a beautiful nickname,” she said, adding that she was told the term means flower, particularly the way it is represented through dance. “In Apsara class, my legendary dance teacher rarely calls me Bobbie.”

She is currently working with the Apsara Arts Association and Cambodia Living Arts, but she began learning about Cambodia many years ago. When she was a young girl, she was taught about the Khmer Rouge regime. Learning about the tragedies during this time began her trajectory towards the current research she is doing on Cambodian culture.

Besides enrolling in Apsara class, she has been researching other types of Khmer classical dance, as well as the classical dances of the country’s ethnic minorities. She is doing her research on the identity of each type of dance and the soulful emotions expressed by the dancers.

She said that many of the dances have been ignored, especially some minority dances, and she wants to help the world see these splendid dances and the emotions that are expressed.

To Bigby, dance can help to define one’s spiritual identity, and in Apsara in particular, each pose says something special. She values Apsara dance for its contribution to the identity of this ancient country. “If we do not discover the strong identity hidden inside, how can we encourage people to be involved in the art of cultural expression,” she said. “Apsara dance is so beautiful. All nations can identify with it even though it is unique to Cambodia. My hope for this exploration is to step further not only to learn, but also to enlighten Khun Khmer and encourage the world to take a deep glance at the emotions exposed within Apsara dance.”

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