Apsara Dance, also known as the classical Cambodian Ballet, is a delicate dance form originating in the 7th century. Hinduism and Buddhism form an integral part of Cambodian culture, and this dance form can be seen on the intricate carvings of ancient temples pointing its origins from the Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Through this article, we will help you understand the historical and cultural significance of the Apsara dance and how could you see a performance.
Who Were the Apsaras? The Myth Behind Them
According to Hindu mythology, beautiful and divine creatures were born by Churning of the ocean Milk called Samudra Manthan. The Apsaras were one of those beautiful creatures, and legend has it that these Apsaras would come down to Earth to entertain the Kings and Gods alike. A belief in the female spirit of the clouds and water was so entrenched in Khmer culture that King Jayavarman VII, who was behind the Ta Prohm and Bayon temples, is believed to have had more than 3,000 Apsara dancers in his court.
Apsara Dancing - The Cambodian Ballet
The Apsara Dance is characterised by slow-paced, intricate and delicate moves and maneuvres which are done to mesmerise and hypnotise the audience. This is a reflection of the Gods and Kings having been completely entranced by the graceful movements of the beautiful apsaras. The hand gestures, of which there are more than 1500, are the key part of this artform. The finger movements depict various meanings throughout the performance. This can include the nature spirit worship by depicting a flower in bloom to referencing one of the hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu legends.The jeeb - a hand position that is defined by pressing the thumb and forefinger together and fanning the remaining fingers out — carries many different meanings, including shyness, laughter, love, and sorrow. The dance has become so iconic with Khmer culture that in 2008, it was placed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The dance is so complex that girls start training from a young age to ensure they gain the flexibility that is needed in their hands and feet to carry out the graceful and intricate moves, which make it look like the women are floating on clouds.
Apsaras are identified by their elaborate costume, which consists of elegant silk clothing, stunning jeweled headdresses, and precious necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and anklets.
The Apsara Dance TodayDuring the deadly Khmer Rouge reign from 1975–1979, 90 percent of the country’s artists were killed. This massacre included Apsara dancers, and the art form was almost wiped out by the Pol Pot-led regime. Thankfully, a few dancers survived and were able to pass on their knowledge to younger generations, breathing new life into the ancient art form.
The tradition has also inspired a string of contemporary versions, with Sophiline Cheam Shapiro championing the traditional dance while modernizing it to fit in with the 21st century. The troupe performs across the world, with several performances put on in Cambodia.