A Deep Dive On Khmer Classical Dance

Khmer classical dance’s history first grew out of the great Angkor Empire (9th-15th CE) and is over 1000 years old.

Apsara Cambodian Khmer classical dance
National Museum Dancing. PHOTO: Vivian Bauer

Once you arrive in Phnom Penh you must attend a dance show at the National Museum of Cambodia. This dance performance is a perfect introduction to the delicate and beautiful art form that is an important part of Cambodia’s rich tradition and history. The dance show on its own doesn’t tell you much about the detail and history of the dance form, so I hope that this article can provide you with more background information to prepare you for your next big trip.

Khmer classical dance’s history first grew out of the great Angkor Empire (9th-15th CE) and is over 1000 years old. Dances back then had multiple meanings. Many performances were a type of prayer and ritual, some were for royal funerary rites, and others acted as entertainment for the gods. Each dance performance comes with its own unique story based on Hindu and Buddhist folklore. For example, the spirit Apsara appears in most dramas as a heavenly celestial nymph from both Buddhist and Hindu tradition. Apsara’s presence also floods the walls of Angkor which explains why she is a key element to Khmer classical dance. If you take note of the carvings at Angkor Wat, you can see how the gestures, most notably the flexible and rigorous hand movements, mimic the spirit.

Apsara Cambodian Khmer classical dance
Apsara details at Angkor, Khmer Classical Dance. PHOTO: Vivian Bauer

After Cambodia’s independence from the French in 1953, the king and queen then founded the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. The intricate and deliberate gestures of Khmer classical dance made it an important part of the country’s post colonial identity and the Royal Academy paved new ways for expanding the art form. Unfortunately, when the radical communist Khmer Rouge rose to power in 1974, Khmer classical dance was then prohibited because it was seen as a reflection of the bourgeoisie. By 1979, nearly 2 million Cambodians died, among them were many experts and dancers of Khmer classical dance.

After the Khmer Rouge regime, the Royal University of Cambodia started to piece together old dances and dramas using what little resources were left behind. This was no easy task and there are a lot of techniques and information still missing today. In 2003, the international community recognized the importance of Khmer classical dance in Cambodia and the dance was inducted into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

Today, the revitalization of Khmer classical dance takes many new forms. For instance, in 2015, Prumsodun Ok founded the first LGBTQ+ dance company in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Prumsodun Ok grew up in Long Beach, California which has the largest Khmer diaspora outside of Southeast Asia. While practicing dance in California, Prumsodun recognized the need for more gender inclusive Khmer dance spaces, since typically Khmer classical dance has fairly strict gender roles. This led him to open the first LGBTQ+ studio in Cambodia’s capital. I urge you to listen to his Ted Talk  to enlighten yourself even further on his company’s mission of inclusion and cultural education. Another modern interpretation of Khmer classical dance is by choreographer, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who created her own Cambodian dance version of Shakespeare’s Othello. The play created quite a bit of controversy since it also alluded to many of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and appropriated the classical dance form in new ways.

As you can see, it is only natural for art to take on new shapes and meanings and that is what young Cambodians today aim to do with the exquisite Khmer classical dance.

Apsara Cambodian dance
Flickr Sodanie Chea

Vivian Bauer


Vivian is passionate about everything related to music, art, and language. When traveling, she loves to walk for miles, try all kinds of food, and visit every museum. She has lived in Singapore, Belgium, and Brazil while hoping to one day travel to Mongolia and East Timor.

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