‘One, two, three... I can do this. I am Tola’

Tola An taught himself the dance moves that now wow crowds during his revue performances.
Tola An taught himself the dance moves that now wow crowds during his revue performances. Nicky Sullivan

‘One, two, three... I can do this. I am Tola’

After overcoming crippling shyness, Siem Reap dancer Tola An now thrills crowds nightly during revues at The Station wine bar in Siem Reap

To the emphatic, euphoric beats of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love three shirtless young men in black jeans slide, grind and pop their bodies with pitch-perfect rhythm. In the narrow, dimly lit space of The Station wine bar in Siem Reap, their smiles are brighter than sequins as they artfully catch the attention of random audience members, most of whom watch in wide-eyed wonder.

It doesn’t take long to notice that the lead dancer especially owns the stage, his confidence beaming out and carrying everyone in the joy as he mouths the words: “if you ain’t there, ain’t nobody else to impress” before jumping off the stage to dance with a female audience member who looks like she’s never been so delighted with life.  

And everyone kept saying the same things: “he’s a professional”, “such an amazing dancer”, “he’s got so much energy”. But Tola An is not a professional, in the narrow sense of the word; in fact, he taught himself all the moves.

He’s also very shy. 

“When I got up on stage at The Station the first time, it was a big scare. I thought ‘oh my God, I’m in shock’, and my heart was going duk, duk, duk. I thought to myself, ‘how can I do this?’

“But then I said, I can be strong on stage. Now, one, two, three, I can do this. I am Tola.”

And as the demented synth beats of Gangnam Style kicked in, he did do it. Now he says he’s known as “Mr Gangnam”. 

That was three years ago. Since then, An has also landed a job dancing with Rosana Broadway, where he is taught by a professional instructor. But for the hip-hop, funk and disco moves at The Station’s weekly revues, there was YouTube, from which he has learned everything he knows about dancing. 

It’s a long remove from the ancient Khmer dance style that he learned as a teenager after he saw it performed at a pagoda. “When I saw that, I thought ‘oh my God’, I have to do that,” he says, his eyes still lighting up at the memory. 

The 25-year-old is older than the others on the stage, and doesn’t dress up in the ultra-glam gowns and get-up of his co-dancers. He just has his spot-on rhythm, muscular frame and the sheer joy that he expresses to count on, but he makes them count. 

“I’m too scared to look sexy on stage,” he said, which might come as a surprise to many of his fans.

“And I don’t understand it. I’m not beautiful or tall like my friends on the stage.” 

But despite An’s clear ability, he has no dance ambitions beyond what he has now. He has never left Siem Reap, largely because he gets car sick, and says that if he went to Phnom Penh, it would only be to get a passport. This is also why he cycles everywhere, especially between his three jobs – he also works in The Little Red Fox.  

Dancing has brought him more than just an income. Learning the words to the songs has expanded his knowledge of English, and broadened his community. It may be the first time that It’s Raining Men has been used as an educational tool – this was the song that taught An the word “excited”. 

What he would really like to get out of it is land for his parents and to help his family. The youngest of five, “I work hard everyday, because I think I can help everyone. I can do it,” he said. 

But keeping his audience happy is clearly a priority too. 

“When I dance, I feel so happy, like I can do everything. I want to make the audience happy with me, so that we all can feel the same.”

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