By Vanly Keomuda
Culture is the social behaviour and norms that express the identity of a society or a nation. It includes architecture, language, arts, music, dance, costume, custom, and others. Mostly, when people think of Cambodia’s culture, the first thing that they think of is the ancient Hindu temples, especially the Angkor Wat temple which is the symbol of Cambodia. However, there is a lot more to Cambodia’s culture than its ancient architecture. In this blog post, I would like to introduce a Cambodian traditional dance that people tend to overlook when they think about Cambodia: the Apsara Dance.
If you have visited the Angkor Wat or the Bayon temple, you would have noticed the beautifully crafted bas-reliefs on the temples’ walls. Among the reliefs, there are plenty of female figures that appear to be dancing, these figures are called ‘Apsara’. According to Cambodian mythology, Apsaras were beautiful celestial maidens that were born as a result of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (an episode in Cambodia-Hindu mythology). It was believed that the Apsaras descended from heaven in order to entertain the gods or the kings with their beautiful dance, and thus originated the Apsara Dance.
The facts around the emergence of the Apsara dance in Cambodia are still ambiguous. Some say it already existed in the 6th and 7th centuries, while others claim that it began in the 8th century. Even so, the dance reached the peak of its popularity in the 12th century during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, when it was estimated that there were around 3,000 Apsara dancers in his court. In the ancient times, the Apsara dance was performed only at the Royal Court.
The Apsara dance, however, is not exclusively seen in Cambodia; that is, this tradition extends to other nations as well, specifically the countries that were influenced by Hinduism, like Thailand, Indonesia and other East-Asian countries. Even so, I think what makes the Cambodian Aspara dance stand out from the others is the individuality that the Khmer put in the dance in order to express or reflect their culture and identity, starting from the clothes to the accessories to the dancing style. Just by watching the dance, you will get the brief understanding of Cambodia’s personalities and characteristic.
The Apsara dance in Cambodia is known for its beautifully designed costumes, headpieces/headdresses, and accessories, all of which are based on the carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat. The dance is performed by five or seven females who are dressed in silk draping known as ‘Sampot Sarabap’ and accessorised with shimmering golden headdresses, bracelets, and anklets. The role of the Apsara dancers can be distinguished by the tips or the points of the headpiece. The headdress of the ‘prima ballerina’ or the lead dancer is made with five points and two rows of spherical decorations in the image of the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat, while the crowns of the ‘corps de ballet’ or the subordinate dancers have only three tips and one row of spherical decorations. Besides the stunning silk clothes and the crowns, the Apsara dancers are also accessorised with four types of wrist jewellery and two types of golden anklets. It is said that the embellishment of the Apsara dancers are reflective of the wealth and prosperity of the Khmer Empire.
Cambodian Apsara dance also has a uniquely stunning dancing style. The movement of the dancers is elegant and modest, yet also agile at the same time. Every single movement of the fingers denote a particular meaning that describe the process of a blossoming flower. Because the dance is quite complex, the Apsara dancers are trained since a very young age in order to flexible enough to perform these intricate movements.
Personally, I believe that the Apsara Dance is a good representation of Cambodia’s unique character, not only because of its captivating dancing, but also because of its fascinating background. The dance has survived for centuries through plenty of Cambodia’s history and even managed a renaissance after the Khmer Rouge era, a period when arts and cultures were completely decimated. The long existence of this dance form demonstrates the love that Cambodians have for it. It is incredible that Cambodians have been able to keep the dance alive for many centuries, throughout many changes in history. Even today, the Apsara dance remains the pride and joy of Cambodia and it is normally performed in many formal receptions and programmes nationally and internationally.
Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.