Chap Chamrouen Tola, 34, has devoted much of her life so far to classical Khmer dance and as a result she’s performed on all six of the fully inhabited continents – if there is a theatre in Antarctica the manager should get in touch – in addition to being a dance teacher at the Secondary School of Fine Arts.
She also works as a choreographer for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and teaches her own classes independently both in the Kingdom and abroad. For example, Tola travels to Paris, France a few times per year to teach classical dance to a multi-national group of students.
“Obviously, from Cambodia to France, that is a very long distance. Once I arrive there we do not have much time to practice because there’s only Saturday and Sunday and there’s three hours of class per day, but we try to make them understand as much of it as possible,” Tola told The Post.
Tola, who has been teaching classical dance for the past 15 years, said that the Paris dance class has about 20 to 30 students.
At first, she said, there were only Cambodian-French students, but now the Khmer classical dance classes also have foreign students who have no ethnic or personal background ties to Cambodia as well as students who are from other ethnicities in the region, such as Hmong and Lao people, who still feel a stronger connection to Khmer dance than to western traditions and there aren’t many classes of this type available period.
Tola was once known as an outstanding student of the legendary dance teacher Princess Buppha Devi, though the Paris students of Khmer classical dance she teaches probably don’t know the full significance of that pedigree.
The dance classes in Paris take place every Saturday and Sunday with many younger students being enrolled and brought to the studio by their parents.
Even the most skilled dance students in France do not typically know much about Khmer dance styles or techniques and this is one of the challenges that Tola constantly faces there.
“They were born in France they do not speak much Khmer and do not understand the Khmer dance technique much,” she said.
Teaching dance in France also requires teachers to use different pedagogical methods from their home country where the traditional teaching methods often involve the use of harsh word and dance teachers forcing their bodies into stretch positions.
“In Cambodia, our law also forbids the use of violence, but usually in classical dance teaching we always have some shouting, sometimes using stern expressions, but in France we cannot do that,” said Tola.
The mixed background students also require a series of lectures, theories and explanations for everything as well.
“Most of the kids in France, we train them by using soft words rather than using harsh words. We show it to them and explain to them what the technique is, for example explaining the style from 1 to 10 to make sure they understand,” she added.
Although teaching students in France has its difficulties, Tola saw that most of the students who are of mixed race were able to identify on a deeper level with their Khmer cultural background through the art of classical dance.
What makes this dance teacher motivated to teach students abroad is that they’ve decided to learn classical dance with passion and love from their own hearts.
“It’s really encouraging because they love it by themselves. In Cambodia, some families force their children. Sometimes their children do not have any passion for Khmer traditional dance. But children in France, they come to learn how to dance because they love Khmer classical dance by themselves,” she said.
Besides teaching dance on Saturdays and Sundays, Tola is also working a general administration job and does presentations to promote Khmer culture.
“We have various programmes. To show our Khmer identity, we have performances in many places,” she said.
Students who reach a high enough level of dance are selected to perform after undergoing some training courses.
“Their dancing is alright because they have very strong commitment. It’s good if they try harder. They have foundation, if we explain more about how to express emotions and feelings, they can perform,” she said.
The dance teacher said some students have only been learning for a few months but they can perform with experts already in some dancing styles.
The association plans to hold a big performance in the centre of Paris on October 14 with the participation of dance students.
“So now they have been training. Normally we only practice one shift, but because we will have a performance we have to practice until the evening,” she said.
Sharing is caring
Apart from France, the dance teacher added that as long as there is support in any part of the world she is willing to go and teach, because it’s sowing knowledge abroad as well as contributing to the growth of culture and art.
“We work at the Ministry of Culture; we can say it is a mission when we go to teach, because it is for our national culture to prosper. If we are not going to teach abroad, and all of us only stay in the country it won’t grow at all,” she said.
With her many years of dance experience, she recalled that what she remembers the most was in 2010 when Princess Bopha Devi organised a performance and she played the main character.
“It’s a good memory because the character that I performed was a female with strong leadership, not a soft woman. It’s a memory but it means that we are women, but we are not soft women,” she said.
Traditional oral arguments
Lack of documentation on classical dancing styles is a serious challenge – it means a lack of accuracy of the dance form from one generation to another. There is still no clear documentation today, adhering only to the ancient practices of the teachers.
When senior teachers are gone, the next generation often disagree with each other with both sides saying they are right and this presents a big challenge for her as a dance teacher and as a classical dancer.
“For me, actually it’s not about being 100 per cent wrong or 100 per cent right, but we need solidarity about what we use as a basis to teach the next generation so that they can easily understand. If we are the teachers and we disagree with each other the next generation gets confused. They won’t be able to know exactly what they are supposed to learn to pass to the next generation,” Tola said.
No love at first dance
A Phnom Penh native, Tola has seven siblings and her two older sisters were also traditional dancers. One sister living in France recently played an Apsara character in Ream’s latest documentary video.
Tola started to learn dance at the age of seven. At dance school, besides dancing, Tola was also taught how to act like a lady because she was a tomboy and her manners weren’t very refined.
“At first I was really unhappy; I really did not want to learn traditional dancing. Seeing Hong Kong movies or seeing a good lawyer, I wanted to be like them. I wanted to study law to become a lawyer, but I ended up learning classical dance. I was really unhappy,” she said.
But because dance provided both knowledge and an income to support her family, Tola began to love it and decided to pursue a classical dancing career immediately after graduating from high school.
“When we go abroad – even overseas – we are always known as a classical dancer. It gives me pride that they remember who we are and that because of this career, they know us and they know Khmer culture,” she said.
“The most memorable trip abroad I’ve ever taken was when we followed King Norodom Sihamoni when he was performing in the Czech Republic. It was with great pride that we went with the King to perform abroad,” said Tola.
Tola has also performed in Asia and among ASEAN countries the only one she hasn’t performed in yet is Myanmar. She has also performed in India, Sri Lanka, US, Mexico and many times in Korea and Japan.
With pride and admiration for her classical dance talent, she also wants the Cambodian people to support classical arts with a genuine love for them.
“Sometimes we use the words ‘take care of our ancestors’, but do not overlook those who serve ancestral arts, such as classical dancers and classical musicians. They are the servants of culture and the arts and we must help support and encourage and take care of them, so that the culture will survive.
“We have Angkor Wat, but if there is no one takes care of it then Angkor Wat will also deteriorate. Therefore do not overlook those who serve the arts because we need to join hands to make our culture strong.
“I want everyone to get along with each other. If we do not have unity, the fence will be too loose. Solidarity – do not let ours flow out too much, and do not let others flow in too much,” Tola said.