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MY PHNOM PENH: Em Theay, Dancer

Em Theay is a classically trained dancer who spent many years with the Cambodian Royal Ballet.
Em Theay is a classically trained dancer who spent many years with the Cambodian Royal Ballet.

MY PHNOM PENH: Em Theay, Dancer

Em Theay Dancer Em Theay is a classically trained dancer who spent many years with the Cambodian Royal Ballet, which marks its 100th anniversary next week. Theay grew up in the Royal Palace under the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, and at 85 years old is the only surviving dancer from the era. This week, she spoke with Vandy Muong about the places and things in Phnom Penh that remain important to her

Chan Chhaya pavilion at the Royal palace

Chan Chhaya pavilion at the Royal palace

I was born in the Royal Palace – my parents were cooks for the royal family. I spent my childhood there, until the war started. When I was 6 years old, King Sihanouk saw that I had talent and asked me to study dancing. At that time, there was no dancing school besides the one [at the Chan Chhaya pavilion] at the Royal Palace. There were more than 80 dancers. There were not many children there, and the King often came to play with me. I still have a good relationship with [his son], King Sihamoni. I go to the Khmer ballet performances at the Royal Palace today.

Khmer ballet, or robam preah reach trop

Khmer ballet, or robam preah reach trop

Robam preah reach trop [the formal name for Khmer ballet] was created for the purpose of entertainment as well as ceremony for the royal courts. My parents were happy when I became a dancer at a young age. I used to perform for a lot of events at the Royal Palace and Chaktomuk Hall, as well as during public occasions in Cambodia and in other countries. The King sometimes took 10 or 20 dancers and musicians on his trips abroad. During the Khmer Rouge time, I could not hide my identity, because they knew that I was a lakhon actor. But I was lucky at that time – my family was deported to Battambang, but I performed for the Khmer Rouge. My costumes were destroyed during this time. I get goosebumps when I think about it.

The riverside

The riverside

When I was young, it was very busy in the Royal Palace and there was not much time to go out. But sometimes my friends would come to see the river view and the boats and ships on the Tonle Sap. During the Water Festival, there were many boats that would race in front of the Royal Palace. The dancers were invited to perform then for the royal family and people that came in from the provinces. I did not have much time to explore it [then], but with the rest of my life I have enjoyed it.

Spiritual spaces

Spiritual spaces

Preah Ang Dongker is one of the biggest sacred places – it is the shrine placed in front of the Royal Palace and worshipped by a majority of Cambodian people. We never forget to stop and pray there when we go for an event. As dancers, we also performed classical dance to pray to the spirits. Wat Phnom is another place where we celebrated these ceremonies, but now I never see performances there. It is quiet – there are not so many people who go there to pray for good luck. In my time, foreigners came to visit Wat Phnom and they would take photos with us during the classical performance.

The Department of Performing Arts

The Department of  Performing Arts

Before there was an art school, I was teaching at the Royal Palace. People who were interested in learning came to register – from one generation to another. I retired when I was 55 years old, but I am still involved with helping the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Students can now train professionally at the Department of Performing Arts and the University of Fine Arts. I go to teach when I am invited – in Phnom Penh and in the provinces – because it is what I love to do, and I am happy to contribute my knowledge. My daughter and granddaughter also teach local and international students about the Khmer ballet, because this skill is a national heritage.

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