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Rebirth or twilight? Cambodian classical dance on the brink

Rebirth or twilight? Cambodian classical dance on the brink

After nearly being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, the art of Cambodian classical dance

is again under threat, this time by the curse of underfunding.

Stephen O'Connell, Lon Nara and Vann Chan Simen visit the last bastion of Cambodian

classical dancing and learn of the troubled past and uncertain future of the Kingdom's

most distinctive cultural art.

In the cool of the morning, dozens of girls arrive at Phnom Penh's Royal University

of Fine Arts. Dressed in the uniforms of ordinary students, the girls giggle and

gossip as they make their way down the dusty path to the dance hall.

There they start another day of rigorous training, learning the ritualistic dance

of Cambodia's royal court - an ancient art that has its origins in India and was

refined in the time of the Angkorian kings.

Long pieces of cloth, colored red or blue, are taken from bookbags. As the girls

wrap the lengths around their waists, friends help each other with the folding and

twisting needed to form Kaben - the traditional pantaloons worn by court dancers.

Their white school blouses are then removed to reveal shimmering silk aavriph, tight-fitting

blouses in an array of bright colors.

Once in costume the girls limber up, pulling hands and fingers back to a degree made

possible only by years of painful practice.

An instructor arrives, stick in hand, and the girls quietly take their places in

orderly rows. One of the older student starts to chant. When joined by the voices

of the other girls, the hall fills with a haunting rhythm as the training in the

divine dance begins.

These girls are just some of the 436 students of classical and folk dance now enrolled

at the Royal University of Fine Arts. The school - established by King Norodom Sihanouk

in 1965 - is dedicated to keeping Cambodia's ancient performing arts alive in a world

increasingly dominated by television and karaoke.

In Angkorian times, these dancers were considered the embodiment of apsara, celestial

angels that brought messages from the Gods. Through their movements, the dancers

interpreted the epic stories of the Hindu Ramayana.

After the fall of Angkor, the royal dance of the Khmers went into decline, but was

kept alive in the courts of Siam's kings. French colonialists struggled to revive

the Khmer ballet early last century and had to import dancers from Siam to teach

the lost skills.

The traditions of the royal ballet suffered another near-fatal blow during the rule

of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Only a handful of dancers survived the brutal


One of those survivors now responsible for passing the skills and traditions to the

next generation is 66-year-old Ruos Kong, a master of Khmer classical dance.

Kong's own study of dance began inside the royal palace some 58 years ago. "My

auntie was also a dance instructor and I asked her to help me enter the palace's

dance school," she said.

Kong recalls being trained with hundreds of other students who were instructed in

the graceful movements of royal dance by instructors whose lessons were fortified

with steely discipline.

"If the student did not remember their moves then they were punished,"

Kong said. "I had difficulty with my training at the first - especially bending

my hands to make them flexible."

The teachers might have been intimidating, but Kong was not afraid of the Queen and

the King.

"Old people had instructed me how to pay proper respect to them," she said.

"I used to perform classical dance for the King's distinguished guests such

as President Sukarno and the French general, Charles de Gaulle".

She also performed on stages across Asia, Europe and the United States.

"After the coup in 1970, King Sihanouk left for a foreign country. Most of the

dancers abandoned the palace due to the bad political situation. When the Khmer Rouge

took Phnom Penh, all the dancers fled."

Kong said she hid her background as a dancer from the Khmer Rouge because the regime

considered performers to be enemies.

She believes only about 10 members of the Royal dance troupe survived the years of

KR rule.

"After the Khmer Rouge regime, I tried to remember all the classical dancing

styles so I could teach, but my hands were no longer flexible."

Kong feels that many of today's dance students must bear too great a financial burden

in the pursuit of mastering their art. "During my time, the royal couple funded

us and gave food. We had monthly allowance provided by the royal couple," said


She strongly believes the spirit of this ancient Cambodian art can only passed on

by Khmer elders. "It is very important to learn the Khmer dance from old people.

To lose our dance would be like razing Angkor Wat to the ground. Khmer people cannot

study their dance from foreigners, but only from their own people."

Kong is dismissive of the artistic merits of modern western styles of dance that

are increasingly popular with a new generation of young Cambodians.

"Anybody can teach disco dancing".

Em Theay, 68, is another royal dancer who survived the KR.

Her mother was a cook for the royal couple, King Suramarit and Queen Nearireath -

King Sihanouk's parents - and she was born in the royal couple's home.

"When (King Sihanouk) was enthroned, I was moved into the royal palace for dance

training because the royal couple enjoyed my dancing very much. I was seven-years-old."

"The royal couple asked the teacher what role I would play. The teacher replied

that I would play a giant. So I trained to dance as a giant," said the diminutive


The daily dance training would begin shortly after sunrise.

"At dawn, we would rub the dew from the morning grass on our hands in order

to make them supple."

"In the evenings the classical musical band performed and we would sing while

the royal couple played flutes."

Theay was married at 18 to a soldier assigned to the Royal Palace.

"Sadness and happiness mingled together," she said of her life as a court

dancer. "I was most happy and proud when I performed on the stage."

After the coup against Prince Sihanouk, the Lon Nol government asked most of the

royal dancers to leave the palace, only allowing a few to stay. Then came the Khmer


"After 1975 I tried hard to remember the traditional songs. Because I was sick

I couldn't work so the Khmer Rouge soldiers let me look after children in the village.

I sang the songs to lull the children to sleep, practicing the words so I would not

forget them.

"The Khmer Rouge soldiers would listen discreetly as I practiced. They knew

my background as a dancer. One day they asked me to perform a dance in the rice paddies.

The soldiers laughed at me and seemed happily surprised so I just danced and sang


Theay was the mother of 18 children - only five survived the Killing Fields.

Immediately after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, she went to Battambang

where she began to train young dancers.

In 1980 the Ministry of Arts and Culture learned she had survived and Theay was invited

to Phnom Penh to train dancers before taking up her present position with the Ministry

of Culture.

"Now my hands are not flexible like before, but I just tell the students to

follow my movements."

For Theay, classical dance is more than just a series of pretty movements. "It

uplifts the Khmer soul. Though the apsara dancers carved at Angkor Wat are made of

stone, classical dance is still alive."

But like Kong, not all forms of dance are equal in Theay's eyes. "I dislike

disco. Disco dancers should not go too far - it is not good to go too far."

Chhorn Yana, 21, has studied dance for eight years at the Royal University of Fine

Arts and she wants to follow in the footsteps of Kong and Theay. "I love classical

dance and I have trained very hard to get where I am today."

Yana has vivid memories of the long, painful hours of flexibility training, the tortuous

bending of hands and legs.

"It was very painful when the teachers bent them during my early years of training.

My teachers are very strict, but I want to become a dance teacher when I leave school.

My father and uncles are dancers, so I want to succeed them in my generation."

"I used to feel nervous when I first performed, but now I am used to it. I have

no worries when I dance," said Yana.

But Keo Malis, Director of the university's dance faculty, said he is nervous about

the school's future. He said the facilities are overcrowded and in desperate need

of renovation. "The roof has many holes and the students can't train when it


The students, mostly from Phnom Penh, each receives a 'scholarship' from the government

- but at 3,000 to 6,000 riel per month it doesn't help a great deal.

During the 1980s, the Ministry of Culture had a policy of hiring Fine Arts graduates.

Those graduates had two options - either work as instructor at the school, or

work in the ministry. But after 1990, these guaranteed jobs ceased to exist. Graduates

these days must fend for themselves. Some find jobs in Cambodia's tourist areas dancing

at hotels or restaurants. Many find careers outside dance.

"I can see the school disappearing one day soon because it's difficult to find

successors for the teachers," said Malis. "If our students can not replace

us when we retire. Training them for nine years might just prove fruitless."

"If a culture is strong, then a society will be strong. Cambodian culture has

existed for a thousand years. If Cambodians do not strive to maintain their heritage,

they will lose their unique identity."

Malis said the King used to be a great promoter of Cambodian arts and culture, but

with advancing age and a host of pressing problems, royal support has declined.

The greatest hope for the survival of Cambodia's rich and ancient culture lies with

today's aspiring young artists.

Rith Nimol, 18, is a sixth year dance student at the Royal University. "When

I first saw the royal dance performance on TV, I fell in love with it. I then asked

my auntie to let me enter the dancing school."

"I train four hours daily and it is very difficult. I have to bend my hands

every day so that they look beautiful. We cannot perform if our hands are not flexible.

Sometimes I was beaten by my instructors because I could not do it properly. But

I still hope to become a dance teacher."

"The royal dance is very important to Cambodia because it allows us to share

our culture with the world. It is so beautiful," said Nimol.

"One day I hope to dance for the King."


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