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Stumbling through the celestial gardens

ShannonDunlap

TO her credit, Visal never laughed. Not while I was waddling like a duck behind her. Not while I was trying to twist my misshapen index finger into a more acceptable curve. Not even when I was perched on one leg and struggling for balance like a flamingo with impaired motor skills.

Then again, perhaps that kind of restraint is only fitting for an apsara dancer, an artist associated with kings and angels, elegance and grace. Even today, centuries after the heyday of apsara dancing in the royal Angkor court, it’s a profession that commands respect. When I was looking for Visal’s house before my first dance lesson, a man down the street knew her, if not by name, certainly by reputation, and he pointed at her gate with obvious awe.

“There,” he said. “That is the house of the apsara dancers.”

In the side yard is a large tiled dance studio, open on one side like a stage. Here, Visal and her sister Chakrya, who have worked as professional dancers at Koulen II Restaurant, have taught scores of youngsters from the countryside the ancient dance forms free of charge, and they agreed to try to teach me, too, for a few days. I had high hopes that I had chosen a task at which I would actually excel, having spent some years in ballet and modern dance classes.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten the paradox that lies at the center of any kind of dance, which is to take something that is enormously physically demanding and make it look effortless.

Apsara is a profession that still commands respect

And my efforts were sadly, embarrassingly apparent.
“This part is so relaxing it will make you want to lie down and go to sleep,” Visal told me as she tugged my obstinate body parts into position and I racked my brain to remember the Khmer words for “sorry I’m so sweaty”.

We were going over the basics, a set of yoga-like poses that apsara dancers are supposed to do when they first wake up in the morning to “keep the body soft”.

After the basics, we practiced walking. (Yes, walking. I had been under the impression that I already knew how to walk, but trust me, walking is infinitely more complicated when you’re an apsara dancer.) Then we moved on to the opening sequence of a standard classical dance, which tells the story of angels picking flowers in the celestial gardens. I may have looked a little silly tiptoeing through those heavenly flower beds and making floppy circles with my wrists, but I gave it my all.

I’m probably not destined for Koulen’s stage any time soon, but Visal assured me that what makes a good dancer is one’s love for the art.

“When I was first studying seriously, I couldn’t stop dancing,” she said.

“No matter what I was doing, my body wanted to make the movements.”

Now she does not get to perform as often as she would like because of the time constraints of her job as spa manager at the FCC, and because she no longer has the ideal body type for a dancer. Though she is very slender by any normal standards, she assured me that the curvaceous apsaras in the temple carvings would be laughed off the stage if they had to squeeze into one of the required performance costumes.

Now, Visal focuses on sharing her love of dance with children from poor districts. She encourages them to attend classes at her house until they are skillful enough for her to find paying gigs for them. Guests are welcome to watch the classes and perhaps pick up a few moves themselves. (For more information on visiting the dance studio, contact Visal directly at 012279092.)

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