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The traditional dance of Cambodia
An working paper
written by EMILY PHAM

The following paper was arranged on 15th of March, 2005 by 18 year old student Emily Pham as a senior project for school, basing on her own research and an interview held with the author of these pages, which can be read here.

1) What I want to know and why

What I want to know about Cambodian dance is, how flexibility becomes a strong point for the dancers to create the motions and steps of the dance. I want to know if stories are being told in every step? Is there a name known to address a Cambodian dancer? I also want to know if there is a background to Cambodian dance, such as who started it and what is it based on? Furthermore, I want to know how many combinations there are to Cambodian dance?                                                                                                                                                                         
By knowing the answers to these questions, I will be able to give a detailed paper and narrow the information to a certain point.

I also want to know if being able to perform traditional Cambodian dance makes some sort of difference in a person’s status in the Cambodian culture? If so, how would this affect that person in his or her community or family? Will having prior knowledge of Cambodian dance benefit a person such as me? For example, if I were just an ordinary person, living in Cambodia, and eventually learned how to dance and perform Cambodian dance well, would I be able to benefit in society with knowledge of Cambodian dance? The reason why I want to know about Cambodian dance is that I can learn the requirements. Does a dancer have to perfect the dance steps and motions in the hands and body?

By knowing information about traditional Cambodian dance, I will be able to teach others about my country and it’s traditional cultures.

2) What I know, assume and imagine:

Cambodian Dance is a traditional sequence of movements, which may tell a story or help celebrate the New Year. Traditional Cambodian dancers usually start at a very young age (five or six years old) and practice and continue perfecting throughout their lifetimes and then pass it down to their children. They may be a teacher and teach the next generations of young dancers. I know that Cambodian Dance is a form of elegant movements and requires a lot of flexibility. During dances, traditional clothing is worn and practice is essential for performing traditional Cambodian dance. Cambodian dance is taught in a class or in a group of young students. The child’s parents can sometimes teach traditional dance at home. During traditional dances, dancers are to wear traditional clothing and jewelry. Cambodian Dance is built-up of specifically timed steps and precise movements.

I assume that learning about Cambodian dance will benefit me in knowing more about my culture. I will learn about the history of my country, which is the country of Cambodia. I also assume that Cambodian dance is an important part of my country’s history and the dancers are well-respected people. Moreover, I assume there are different dances for each song or beat of music and each dance step of Cambodian dance tells a story.

 I imagine traditional Cambodian dances are dances that can be obtained with the many varieties of steps to improve the dance. Whether dancers are dancing for Cambodian New Year, or for just a casual day, it allows dancers to repeat a piece of the country’s history and past lives by refreshing old memories in our present day life. I also imagine Cambodian dance to be sustained past events and should be cherished by my generation and consecutive generations to come.

3) Recapturing the culture

Cambodian dance is known well for it’s beautiful dancers called Apsaras. Theses Apsaras are usually seen performing at festivals and traditional holidays in places like temples or at a secluded place where the festivals are held. Apsaras always wear beautiful jewelries such as crowns, anklets, bracelets, belts, earrings, and much more that are uniquely decorated gold designs of artwork. Te clothing that Apsaras wear is also finely decorative gold prints of designs on different color silky fabrics. Two special dances that Asparas perform are Ramvong and Ramkbach. Ramvong and Ramkbach dances are very popular dances and are known and can even be performed by almost all Cambodians(Prak).

After Angkor Wat was defeated, it was then followed by the Renaissance, a time where only women were allowed to perform, but now men too are learning the art of Cambodian dance. Traditional Cambodian dance has it’s own mysterious of past life and rebirth of a new generation of a country and it’s culture. Much knowledge of the originality of traditional dance has evolved over the centuries.
Slowly growing from generations, healing wounds of the past. Traditional dance has survived the years of war and changes. Even to this day, not much knowledge of it’s history is known, but only what is told by the very few surviving elders and passed down to the younger generations (Stoevesandt). ”Point Zero”: Pol Pot’s objective  to reborn the country and it’s culture. The educated, the knowledgeable, wise or intellectual had long gone. But researchers from around the world are coming together to help keep the artifacts and temples alive for years to come. Point zero did not succeed, but it has deeply damaged our country and from what the country could have grown to be now.
 Cambodian dancers gives off coordinated body and hand structures that go on beat with traditional folksongs or musical beats. The flexible hand gestures and body movements seen performed by Apsaras, are derived from Angkorian stone reliefs and inspired from the many poses engraved on the Angkorian stone reliefs and statues of ancient Apsaras.

Costumes are made with unique gold design silks and bamboo fabrics. Dancers also use masks to portray the face of the monkey king ”Hanuman” or devils and monsters in folktales and legends. Apsaras use to perform bare breasted and wearing only wing-like trousers and a bid golden necklace and their hair placed in a bun. But for Apsaras, they usually have their hair down to show more elegance and beauty. Dancers then, also danced barefooted, even to this day; dancers still perform barefoot4ed, but dancers now no longer perform bare breasted. Apsara clothing is beautifully decorated with gold designs of patterns and markings that may or may not symbolize gods, on wide silk sheets and bamboo materials. As for male dancers their clothing are traditional trousers and collared shirts and also dance barefooted like female dancers. The clothing of an Apsara was a wide silk that was wrapped around their waist and came over from the back of one of their shoulder and left one should bare. Clothing made for Apsara’s are made to show purity and the beauty of the dancer themselves. Jewelry also shows feminine and elegance in dancers. 

When Angkor Wat  was defeated and the renaissance came into play, men weren’t allowed to perform traditional Khmer dance, and so it was all female dancers who performed male parts, such as war and combat scenes. Women dancers would study how to act and perform like males. Women learn and study male movements to well that they can be mistaken for a real male herself.
Many different instruments are used to create the right melodies and music for dancers to follow along with. For instance, a drum called ”Skor Arak” is used to create a theme followed by the devil or monster who enters and starts killing human beings and eating them. Other instruments like the ”Pin Peat” orchestra, ”Kancha” wooden tubes, cymbals and rattles, ”Phloy” mouth organ, ”Tro Che” violin, and ”Khloy” flute are used for individual purposes and capturing the beat in creating beautiful symphonies and melodies.                            

Comedy is also a type of tradition for the Cambodian culture. ”Ayay” is an example of Cambodian comedy. It is a very popular kind of entertainment other than karaoke. It consists of men and women dancing and trading dialogues of humorous dialects. Folksongs sung by actors and actresses performing plays and doing scripts. Folksongs aren’t always performed or sung by actors and actresses. There are also games played by men and women versus, where they compete in a singing competition and dare the loser to sing with a guy or dance and so on. These are traditional games that are played by men and women at festivals and new years.

Masters of the art are teachers that have studied and mastered years of traditional  Cambodian dance. Masters are very strict teachers when it comes to teaching their students, which isn’t awkward to see a class multiple ages of students taught by one teacher. Students have traditional ceremonies for their masters, which consists of a piece called the ”Homrong”. This piece is known by all musicians. The Homrong can be spotted at festivals, because the Homrong, is a traditional piece that is played at every festival. Students honor their masters by playing this piece. It is known that teachers and their scholars are very close in relation; scholars honor their masters with great respect and pride, for the many years that their teacher has put in to teach them all they know.
Cambodians’ are very linked to their culture and cultural identity, which is dance. Links of Indian or Hindu influences are found in the Cambodian culture. But when the Khmer tradition is compared to the many things thought to have come or been adapted from the Indian culture, (such as: dance, music, theatre, literature, clothing, religion, and so on) it is found, that Khmer traditions have evolved so dramatically that it is practically different and no longer seems like it came from the Hindu culture. 
Therefore Cambodian culture itself has grown and lead on their cultural beliefs and traditions on their own path.