As a practitioner of Khmer classical dance, I belong to a lineage of artists more than 1,000 years old. I practice an art form developed as a prayer in movement for rain and fertility, one that symbolizes the highest in Khmer notions of beauty and identity. Consequently, robam kbach boran, or the “dance of ancient gestures” as we say, can be seen in Khmer communities in Cambodia and throughout the world, where it is practiced, performed, and celebrated by students young and adult, amateur and professional, of Khmer heritage and not alike. The art form embodies “the highest quality of beauty,” as my teacher Sophiline Cheam Shapiro describes it, is a uniquely Khmer contribution to the larger fabric of our shared humanity.
As a classical dancer, I also inherit a legacy of immense loss. From 1975 to 1979, a group of radical communists known as the Khmer Rouge took hold of Cambodia. They initiated a ruthless genocide that killed an entire third of the country’s population, including a tragic ninety percent of Khmer artists. They left the art form and all it represented vulnerable and endangered in a decimated society. It was my teacher’s teachers who would rebuild the art form and the spirit of our people from the ashes of war, genocide, and trauma.
Nearly forty years after this devastation, Khmer classical dance has been revived to new heights. But even in Long Beach, California—where I began writing this text, home to the largest Khmer population outside of Southeast Asia—the effects of this conflict can still be felt. I often wonder where the art form, Khmer people, and Cambodia would be today had it not been for this violent disruption in our history. This is a question on the minds of my peers and teachers all across the globe, one that can be especially harrowing when considering the many ways that dancers carry knowledge, history, and memory within our individual bodies.
Born and raised in the diaspora amidst this narrative of loss, I have always sought the living majesty of my tradition and culture. And, while growing up, I was often disappointed to find few textual materials available. Who were the women in these black and white photographs? What were their lives like? What can they teach us? We may never know as, before a few decades ago, no records written by dancers themselves are known to exist. No books, no essays—not even a single note.
These realities can create a feeling of disjointment for the contemporary practitioner, especially with the pressures of time, distance, and politics at play. Realizing there is much repertoire that I do not know in my state as a “young master” (again, in the words of my teacher)—much repertoire that I will probably never know and perform—and thinking about my students and their students, I recognized a need and urgency to firmly connect the dots.
The dances that we perform now and in the future may not always be the same, the values and realities around us always changing, but we, as Khmer classical dancers, can and must trace our lineage to the dancers throughout history and the spirit that animated their practice. For it is only with knowledge and understanding of the past, with the blessings of those who came before us, in a sense, that we can envision higher possibilities for art and humanity.
What follows is my brief interpretation of the history of Khmer classical dance. It draws upon personal experience and academic sources, anecdotes from my teacher and family, photographs and videos, and news articles and personal analysis. I use mythology and literature, oral and embodied storytelling, visual and performative art, social psychology and linguistics to illuminate my artistic heritage as I see it.
As the tradition’s history has not been recorded by a practitioner in such a manner, I find it most meaningful to write with my presence known. I am artist, scholar, critic, Khmer American, and citizen of the world in the year 2018; all these facets remain in the text and emerge when they have the power to enlighten. Through this, I hope to demonstrate the continuities between Khmer dance of the pre-Angkor and Angkor periods to Khmer classical dance today. And, in doing so, defy the pressures of war, nationalism, and commercialism to pass this cultural legacy on to a new generation of dancers and audiences. Throughout the text then, I address issues of historical and political contestation head on with the belief that only real and honest dialogue can lead to peace, understanding, and renewal.
Therefore, let us begin as we do in classical dance: by invoking and thanking those who came before us.
I hold a deep gratitude for my teacher Sophiline Cheam Shapiro who has written the magic and knowledge that is Khmer classical dance into my body. To her husband John for his continued support and mentorship. To her teachers Chheng Phon, Chea Samy, Soth Sam On, Menh Kossany, and Proeung Chhieng who passed on this gift to her.
Thank you to my teachers Penh Yom, Charles Boone, Jeanne Liotta, and Brook Hinton who have forever impacted my life, including my mentor Oguri and brothers Sherwood Chen and Claudio Valdés Kuri. Thank you to Toni Shapiro-Phim, Paul Cravath, and the other scholars who have dedicated themselves to documenting this tradition, as well as Saveros Pou, Michael Vickery, David Chandler, Ian Mabbett and more for enlightening our world on Khmer history. Thank you to Rosemary Candelario, Priya Srinivasan, Roger Nelson, and Trent Walker for their energizing guidance, suggestions, and support in refining this work. And to Kent Davis, Reinhart Zieger, Noel Hidalgo Tan, and countless others for access to photographs.
Inexpressible gratitude to and reverence for the spirits of the teachers no longer living. And lastly, and very importantly, to Lok Ta Moni Eisey—the ultimate teacher spirit, the first human to receive knowledge of the arts in our tradition. May you all bless me and guide me on this journey of sharing Khmer classical dance, reveal to me and to our world the path of light.