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Spirit, tradition revived in PPenh's Khmer dance clubs

Spirit, tradition revived in PPenh's Khmer dance clubs

17-story-114.jpg
17-story-114.jpg

An impromptu dance session at one of the capital's fashionable Khmer

dance clubs is bound to provide an unforgettable cultural experience

Photo by:
Tracey Shelton

Khmer dancing around a centrepiece, usually a potted plant or a flower arrangement, is popular at most provincial weddings. 

MOST Khmer parties and weddings revolve around traditional Khmer dancing, which involves a centrepiece, often a potted plant, along which the dancers shuffle in a counter-clockwise direction.  On the off chance you have no upcoming event, an impromptu session of Khmer dancing in Phnom Penh can be had at one of the capital's  Khmer dance clubs.

Khmer dance clubs - even the more upmarket ones - can be a bit daunting to foreigners, but those brave enough to check them out will find a most enjoyable evening of traditional Khmer music and dance.

The procedure

Expect to be frisked at the door by security. Ladies' bags will also be checked. This should not be taken as a sign that the place is dangerous; quite the opposite, in fact, because it is likely that no one else inside will be carrying

weapons.

The lighting in many Khmer clubs is kept low, so you will be shown to a seat by an attendant with a flashlight. Most clubs feature sofas and banquettes, with no standing room by the bar; attentive waiters will bring cocktails to your low-standing tables.

But don't expect them to be cheap. The clubs charge no cover, and the band has to be paid. A small bottle of beer will run US$3, while a small plate of fresh mango goes for $4.

Dressing up

These are fashionable, urban hangouts, so everyone will be smartly dressed. Leave the jeans and sandals at home. Flip-flops are strictly forbidden. Ladies generally dress conservatively, and foreigners are better received if they follow the dress code - something not exactly unique to Khmer clubs.

But the main attraction is the music. The bands consist of perhaps six musicians and additional singers, who keep the show rolling with one song segueing into another. When one singer finishes, another appears.

The type of music varies, with alternating sets of Khmer dance and ballroom music. But don't expect to stay in your seats. It is a dance club, after all, and everyone is expected to participate.

Most styles of Khmer dance are easy to follow. The floor becomes crowded quickly, and missteps are most often overlooked. Giving it an honest go and having fun are the main things.

Dancers in most traditional clubs move counter-clockwise (if viewed from above) as they would at weddings. Dance clubs leave out the central table full of flowers because the dancefloor generally gets too crowded.

The lights go down at the end of a Khmer dance set, but you hardly have time to return to your seat for a quick drink before the ballroom set begins. Dancers return to the floor, twirling and stepping out in a full range of ballroom and Latin styles.

Authentic Khmer fun

These clubs have a very grown-up feel - most patrons will be over the age of 30 - so there will not be the sleazy "pickup" vibe of your average discotheque.

Young Khmers might dismiss traditional dance clubs as "old-style" and out of fashion, but this usually means that the venues lack the imported culture so popular among the youth and offer authentic Khmer fun from previous generations.

If you last until 1am, you're likely to be temporarily blinded when the lights come up to full strength and the staff begin to clear the tables. The band will have been playing solidly since about 8:30pm and will be eager for the break,  even if you are not.

Open seven nights a week beginning at about 8:30pm - and just as crowded on weeknights as on weekends - perhaps the two best clubs in town are Golden Town (No 412 Monivong Boulevard) and Golden Boss (corner of Street 94, at the northernmost end of Street 13).

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