Thursday, November 19, 2015


An Apsara dancer strikes an elegant pose
The beautiful young ladies are adorned with gold necklaces, and gold earrings. Gold armbands, and gold bracelets are worn on both wrists and ankles. Gold trim is woven throughout their elegant dresses, colored blue, red or yellow. A bright yellow flower sits over each ear as they dance.

Their headdresses are also gold with studded, circular layers rising above them like a bent Buddhist stupa. Some headdresses look like those seen on topless dancers carved into the walls of the temple of Angkor Wat, that I saw earlier. The dancers on stage before me are all young Khmer women, but the only thing that looks modern about them, is their bright red lipstick.

I'm at the Temple Restaurant in Siem Reap, enjoying an upstairs dinner show. The gold may not be real, but the dance is authentic: this is Apsara. It's unlike any dancing you'll ever see in the west; it has the charm of an Asia that was lost centuries ago.

This ancient art was nearly lost after the communist Khmer Rouge banned it
For those who don't know any better, they might think that these dances and costumes are from old Siam, a.k.a. Thailand. But it's better not to say that to the Khmers. They'll tell you that many centuries ago that the Thais copied them from Khmer dancers of the ancient Angkor kingdom.

The only western dance that looks anything similar to this, is classical ballet. Apsara movements are slow, deliberate, and beautiful. Foreigners quickly notice the women's hands; their thumb and forefinger touch together. The remaining three fingers are pulled back, with each succeeding finger pulled further back. The flexibility of the fingers on these dancers is amazing.

The dancers never smile, keeping their red lips together for the entire performance. Like ballet, their dances and movements tell stories; classical Khmer stories about life and love.

As I watch mesmerized, a traditional Khmer band plays acoustical string instruments, while old style drums keep the beat.

Apsara dancing was often performed for Khmer royalty
Slow and elegant, one dancer balances on only one foot, and pivots around, keeping her other foot elevated. The display of balance and control is amazing. At times this style resembles Hawaiian hula dancing, without the hip movements.

This beautiful Khmer dance tradition was nearly lost from Cambodia forever. When the communist Khmer Rouge took over, Apsara dancing was banned. Nearly all of the master teachers of Apsara were either executed, died from disease, or fled Cambodia.

Later after the radicals were forced from power, a cultural revival began. A few surviving refugee dancers returned to Cambodia. With a princess's support, this traditional dance began to be taught again in Phnom Penh. Slowly but surely, Apsara made a comeback.

Now Apsara is popular once again, and dancers regularly perform for royalty, for Khmer audiences, and for tourists like me. 

Despite all the tragedies that Cambodia has endured, it's good to know that one of their most treasured cultural traditions still survives today. 


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