Dancers preserve a nearly extinct culture

In one dance, Apsaras - female mythological divinities - wearing golden headdresses and jeweled skirts, move in a constant fluid motion as a small orchestra creates a rhythm with voices, drum, and xylophone. In another dance, two men dressed as oxen tumble in perfect synchronization as they depict being hunted in the wild.

This performance of "Dance: the Spirit of Cambodia," by a classical dance troupe from The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is one that the dancers - and Cambodian-Americans - have waited for with great anticipation.

It is part of a American tour which, according to the troupe's artistic director, Proeung Chhieng, has as its goal "not only to perform our art and culture for our people," but also "to express our thanks to the American people who ... support our rebuilding of our country."

That Cambodia has a dance troupe at all is of vast importance to its pep19s1 ople. Dance, an artistic medium Cambodians have cherished for centuries, was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, a genocidal group led by Pol Pot, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

"With Pol Pot, they wanted to eliminate everyone," Mr. Chhieng says, "especially those able to entertain. Pol Pot wanted to build a new Cambodia, so he tried to kill all of our actors and teachers."

During the reign of Pol Pot, Cambodians young and old, male and female, were put into labor camps, where they were starved, tortured, and killed. Some managed to escape; some, especially those with an artistic skill, such as dance, strove to hide their identities.

By the time Pol Pot was overthrown in 1979, it is estimated that somewhere between 1 million and 2 million Cambodians were killed. Among these were 90 percent of the country's artists and teachers.

In a country like Cambodia, where even today many people live in remote villages with little or no access to books and written records, a medium such as dance keeps traditions and stories alive. Losing these traditions would have been a profound loss to people of Cambodia.

But shortly after the fall of Pol Pot, the remaining classical dancers in Cambodia regrouped in Phnom Penh, the capital, to study dance once more.

For those who survived the labor camps of the Khmer Rouge, being able to see that the traditions they shared before Pol Pot's reign, such as dance, are still alive is inspiring. Chhan Touch, is a Cambodian now living in Lowell, Mass., who survived the labor camps at the age of 8.

He says dance does much for his community. "[For Cambodians], the dance represents culture, life, tradition, heritage, pride, friendship, support, identity, and much more," he says. "It represents everything about being a Cambodian."

The tour of "Dance: the Spirit of Cambodia" not only brings its stories and beautiful dance to Cambodian-Americans, but also shares with the world what being Cambodian means.

Regardless of Cambodia's troubled past, Mr. Touch says, "we see we can have pride in who we really are. We have traditions that we are proud of, and more than that, we are proud of being Cambodian...."

'Dance, the Spirit of Cambodia,' goes to Tucson, Ariz., Sept. 15; Austin, Texas, Sept. 18; Lawrence, Kan., Sept. 22; Hanover, N.H., Sept. 25; and Washington, D.C., Sept. 28 and 29. For more information, visit

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