Apsara and the Traditional Dances of Cambodia

Coming to Cambodia, you can easily encounter the beautiful young women dancing Apsara dance in ancient temples, rivers and magnificent palaces.

Apsara is cloudy and water fairies in folklore. When they had fun and danced, plants, animals grow, multiply, so the people of Cambodia has adhered Apsara is the Goddess of Prosperity. The most beautiful fairies were Uvasi, Menaka, Ramba and Tilotama, who often appeared in many works of poetry, music, painting of Cambodia. They were masters of the forbidden palaces, and they danced to congratulate the gods in the parties to celebrate the victory against devil. Each time, there were up to 26 fairies dancing.
A Apsara fairy in the folklore
Learning from mysterious dance movements of celestial maidens, Cambodians have created Apsara maidens dance which is performed in holidays praising the virtues of the gods and the Royal. Dances over the centuries has become royal dances, and then the familiar dance of the pretty young women in the holidays, festivals and weddings.

This is the classical, gentle dance, is renowned for its elegance, nobility, with the postures, gentle gestures. So far, Apsara dance has been Cambodian national property and soul. The one who had merit in the conservation and development of Apsara dance was Princess Buppha Devi. She danced since she was at the age of 8 in the Palace, and introduced the White Fairy dance to the world.
Apsara dance is now famous all worldwide thanks to the merit of Princess Buppha Devi
Born at least 2,000 years ago, the first image of the dance was seen on many decorative plaques, on the city wall and hundreds of meters long trench in the ancient temples of Cambodia, like Angkor, as well as in many religious buildings throughout the country.
The image of Apsara dance could be found in the ancient temples
The postures, movements, the curve of the arm and body of the dancers, as well as costumes decorated with gold, silver, pearls, flowers in this dance are derived from the figures of the ancient temple, depicting India Ramayana epic or the fight between the devil and the God to gain the bottle of Elixir of life containing 100 suggestive and meaningful rhythms.

Through the dance, Cambodian people want to express their dream of a life of peace, prosperity, praise the beauty of the country’s nature, the divine and the merit of the ancestor. Also, they are the touching stories of the birth, disease, old age, death- four life stages that any one must go through, so that the next generations can understand, contemplate and preserve the tremendous cultural and spiritual values of the country.
The costumes of the dancers are decorated with many precious jewelry and gemstone
Each year, thanks to the Royal patronage, Apsara artists go on tour everywhere. To maintain and develop this traditional dance, the art groups regularly go to secondary and high school to recruit the little girls, especially orphans or poor students to teach them the dance. Girls of 8-9 years old are taught this dance and exercise in schools, palaces, learn to perform the attractive posture and movements, especially dance with flexible hand and leg. Every afternoon, the girls go to the temples, reliefs to play, perform Apsara dance, which attracts many visitors to admire.
The dancers of Apsara nowadays not only dance in the temples, Palace, but also in hotels, theater…
Currently, apart from performing the dance to serve the Royal, about 300 Apsara dancers perform in hotels, motels and Chatomuk theater near the Palace in the boisterous music with vibrant, graceful costumes.

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Apsara Dance – Traditional Khmer Dance

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.