Apsara Dance – Traditional Khmer Dance

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Apsara Dance – Traditional Khmer Dance.

Your tour to Cambodia is not complete if you do not attend at least one traditional Khmer dance performance, often called “Apsara Dance” - one of the most popular pieces of classical dance. Traditional Khmer dance is better described as 'dance-drama' in that the dances are not only dance but also meant to convey a story or message.

There are four main modern genres of traditional Khmer dance:
  1. Classical Dance, also known as Court or Palatine Dance (lakhon preah reach troap or lakhon luong)
  2. Shadow theater (sbeik thom and sbeik toot)
  3. Lakhon Khol (all-male masked dance-drama)
  4. Folk Dance (Ceremonial and Theatrical)

As evidenced in part by the innumerable apsaras (celestial dancers) that adorn the walls of Angkorian and pre-Angkorian temples, dance has been part of the Khmer culture for well over a millennium, though there have been ruptures in the tradition over the centuries, making it impossible to precisely trace the source of the tradition. Much of traditional dance (especially Classical) is inspired by Angkorian-era art and themes, but the tradition has not been adopted without interruption since the age of Angkor.

Most traditional dances seen today were developed in the 18th through 20th centuries, beginning in earnest with a mid-19th century revival championed by King Ang Duong (reigned 1841-1869). Khmer kings have strongly supported the arts and dance, most particularly Queen Sisowath Kossamak Nearireach (retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s mother) in the mid-20th century, who not only fostered resurgence in the study and development of Khmer traditional dance, but also helped move it out of the Palace and popularize it.

Classical dance, including the famous “Apsara dance”, has a grounded, subtle, even restrained, yet feather-light, ethereal appearance. Distinct in its ornate costuming, taut posture, arched back and feet, fingers flexed backwards, codified facial expressions, slow, close, deliberate but flowing movements, Classical dance is uniquely Khmer. It presents themes and stories inspired primarily by the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Indian classic, the Ramayana) and the Age of Angkor.

Folk Dance comes in two forms: ceremonial and theatrical. As a general rule, only Theatrical Folk Dance is presented in public performances, with Ceremonial Folk Dances reserved for particular rituals, celebrations and holidays. Theatrical Folk Dances such as the popular Good Harvest Dance and the romantic Fishing Dance are usually adaptations of dances found in the countryside or inspired by rural life and practices.

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