Khmer Dance Survival Put to the Test

Ryan van Velzer salutes an association that is working against the odds with young people to keep a dignified Khmer art form alive.

The history of the Khmer people is written across the walls of Angkor Wat. There, etched into the sandstone are images of dancers immortalized in the poses of ancient art of Apasara, the traditional dance of the Khmer people.

The dance, passed down through generations, was nearly lost in wake of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and has since struggled to regain its former popularity. Today a small dance school in Phnom Penh is working to preserve the traditional dance of the Khmer.

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The Apsara Arts Association started 14 years ago in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.  Though the city has developed and the neighborhood has prospered the goal remains the same: to teach impoverished and underprivileged children Apsara and preserve their cultural legacy.

Offering free classes six days a week, children are taught about the different dances, music, costumes and makeup integral to the art form. Though the dances can take as long as 20 years to master, children are taught many different skills. Besides patience and dedication, students learn how to style hair and do make up, both valuable as skill sets for future professions.

In addition, many children learning the traditional dance form are avoiding the responsibilities of their home lives where they often have to leave school to work alongside their parents in the restaurants, markets and rice fields around Phnom Penh.

Mrs Vong Metry, Vice Director of the Apsara Arts Association and head teacher, now 59, has been dancing since she was five years old.

Taught by the head teacher of Queen Sisowath Kossamak (who preserved and rejuvenated Apsara), Vong became a dance teacher after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge.

Her goal is simple, to transfer her knowledge to the next generation and in doing so, teach them about the history of their people. However, Vong fears that younger generations will forget their cultural heritage, extinguished by the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and trivialized by the speed and growth of contemporary culture.

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“I’m afraid it will one day be lost,” says Vong.

In the past few years, the Apsara Arts Association has lost many of the donors that have paid to keep the school running. The remaining sponsors have dwindled to two: Khiri Travel Cambodia and Monkeyking Travel Agency, which pay for the salaries of one full-time and two part-time teachers working at the school. Khiri Travel now features the school as part of any signature tour of Phnom Penh.

For Jack Bartholomew, Khiri general manager for Cambodia, preserving the culture while teaching underprivileged children is reason in itself to support the association.

“What really makes the Apsara foundation so special is, unlike other associations, which may offer tourists a dinner and a show, these kids really need this support. The teachers are genuine. The benefits to the children are real and long-term. So much culture was lost during the Khmer Rouge era that Apsara is performing a vital role which now contributes to a revived national identity.”