Cambodian Dance

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2007


I take my seat in front of the stage, the moist heat of the day still on my skin.  The theater has no walls, only a backdrop of serene sculpted faces recalling the Bayon temple near Angkor and a high columned roof open to the hot mango-laced air of provincial Cambodia. The young dancers before me begin by stretching their hands: long, slender, pliable fingers absentmindedly bent back to the wrist.  The slight, beautiful Cambodian girls in their glittery costumes seem to me to be like Degas figures but theirs is a dance of the hands as much as the feet, a language of fingers and positions not words.  The arch of the palm, the slope of the fingers, the height of the arm to the body, all these things communicate explicit meanings.  They signify love or sadness, flower or fruit. The stories they tell are often ancient Hindu epics, made Buddhist by time; they are stories as old as Khmer culture itself and as intimately familiar to an audience of farmers in the provinces as to the royal court in the capital.   These dances – and the temples around Angkor, which tell the same epics in stone – are what it means to be Khmer and not Thai or Vietnamese.  But this identity is a fragile, imperiled thing.  The stone sculptures of Angkor, seemingly so eternal, were nearly lost to looting and the march of the jungle, while the dance had no texts and little documentation, the knowledge retained entirely in the bodies of the few master dancers who were not killed by the Khmer Rouge.  I ask how many masters survived and the answer arrives, in a whisper, “Only one in ten.”

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro comes from the stage to greet me and I briefly grasp the soft power of her hands.  She moves gracefully even at rest, the force of her personality palpable from the height of the stage.  Later, in her garden, she will point to a chili plant and say, “The leafs are edible, too.  They are bitter, but if necessary…” Her voice will trail off and then she will laugh, “The Khmer Rouge taught me that.”  Sophiline was 12 at the time the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979; she was a child, still, and no master dancer.  But her uncle would sit by the roadside as people flooded back to the cities that had been emptied by the Khmer Rouge, approaching any artist he recognized.  Among them was a woman named Soth Sam On; she was one of the ten percent, a master at the giant role who had studied with a legendary dancer from the 1906 European tour that seduced Rodin and made the world aware of the exceptional refinement of Cambodian dance.

Soth Sam On became Sophiline’s teacher: tough, unforgiving, ever conscious of past teachers, long dead but still watching, who were ready to reproach her for even the smallest failing.  Now it is Sophiline who teaches, the stage behind her filled with her students.  Sophiline knows the language and history of classical dance and wants to make it speak in new ways, to breathe life into what has come before.  But she knows that the spirits of dance are always watching.  Sometimes, Sophiline says, they will possess a student and, through them, speak to her; then the young become the teachers and the old must learn from them.  Before a troupe will perform an offering is made to the spirit of each character in the dance and to past teachers, acknowledging that they are still the guardians of the art.

I see a woman approach the side of the stage: her large, heavy-lidded eyes, white hair, and caramel skin give her an appearance at once gentle and fierce.  She is powerfully built, but age makes her steps tentative and she walks with a young dancer at either side, tenderly clutching an arm.  She takes an armchair that looks something like a throne; Sophiline sits on the floor by her knee.  The students come to pay their respects and then quietly return to their rehearsal, nervous now knowing that they are being watched more closely.  The students perform for her: first the fan dance with yellow silk flowing across the stage, followed by the Apsara dance with the elegant handwork that is so uniquely Khmer.

Then a young woman begins to dance alone; even without the traditional mask her posture and movements communicate the plodding force of a giant.  Soth Sam On is moved, now.  This is her role.  She can feel its positions running through her like a kind of body memory.  She offers direction from her chair, seeing in an instant what has been performed the way it should be and what is imperceptibly wrong.  The young dancer begins again, her body seeming to swell with the responsibility of becoming a giant for this woman who is the most famous giant alive.  But for Soth Sam On the feeling of the dance is too strong.  She cannot resist its calling any longer and she lifts herself from her chair, finding previously unknown strength, and walks onto the stage like a much younger woman, her hands clapping out the rhythm.  The students are all watching her, enrapt; even the ones off-stage step gingerly back on, transfixed by what is taking place.  Soth Sam On is, again, a teacher.  The young dancer draws from this energy, dancing as she has never danced before.  It is not good enough, of course; it never could be for the spirits who are watching.  But it is better.  And because she is young she carries with her the hope that the dance will survive for another generation, when it must be renewed again.


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Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to see more of Sean’s photographs of Cambodia.