The dances of Cambodia, including classical ballet dances, folklores and Khmer folk dances date back to the 12th-century Angkorian monarchy. Held in high esteem across the country, the dances depict stories and chronicles inspired by carvings and inscriptions of celestial dancers on the walls of Angkorian temples that are a thousand years old. The dancers carved on walls danced for the Gods depicted in heaven.
Significance of the Classical Dances of Cambodia
For Cambodians, dancing is beyond just entertainment and is a form of art of spiritual life and meaning. The classical dancers capture emotions and imaginations by delivering true feelings behind each character they portray through body movements, postures and intricate expressions. Cambodian dance pieces range from complex dance-dramas of love, magic and war along with pure dance forms from the Khmer culture. The acts are embodied by a bunch of different characters like princes and princesses, evil giants, friendly monkeys and male and female deities that build up the story-line.
What are the Various Forms of Traditional Dances in Cambodia?The Dances of Cambodia consist of 3 main categories: Khmer Classical Dances/Court Dances, Folk Dances portraying tribal lifestyle and Social Dances performed at gatherings. Here’s a list of the most popular Khmer classical and folk dances across Cambodia.
Khmer Classical Dances
The Royal Ballet of Cambodia also known as ‘Robam Preah Reach Trop’ is a pre-eminent performing art form in the Kingdom of Cambodia exquisitely known for its luxurious jewellery and costumes with a pleasing soft dance. The Royal Ballet Dance was created by the Khmer royal families as a valuable possession showcasing the high dignity of Khmer dancers. The beautiful dance movements look like the Dance of Devas (Gods) that enact the epic mythological poems of Ramayana.
Two of the most prominently performed classical dances are the Robam Choun Por (Wishing dance) and the Robam Tep Apsara (Apsara dance).
1. Robam Tep Apsara (Apsara Dance)
According to Hindu mythology, Apsaras are ethereal female creatures that come down from heaven to entertain Gods and Kings with their spellbinding dance movements. Pieces of evidence state that the Apsara Dance existed even before the 7th century emerging from the Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Possessed with magnificent powers, the Apsaras would enchant the mortals and dignities with their charm, so much that King Jayavarman VII was believed to have had more than 3000 Apsaras in his court.
The dance consists of slow-paced movements with more than 1500 hand gestures to mesmerize the audiences. Each hand gesture has its own distinct meaning that represents the elements of nature like flowers, rivers, oceans, animals and trees. Other hand gestures portray emotions like sorrow, laughter, shyness and love. The dance requires flexibility to carry out the intricate moves and gestures gracefully to mould the dancers into Apsaras. Apsaras are adorned with their elaborate silk costumes, a stunning embedded headdress and jewelry.
Cambodian Living Arts puts up evening shows on a regular basis at the National Museum in Phnom Penh with a range of traditional musicals, Cambodian ballets and folk dances. Other venues like Angkor Village Apsara Theatre and La Residence d’Angkor also host performances along with dining.
2. Robam Choun Por (Blessing Dance)
A masterpiece created by Her Majesty the Queen Sisowath Kosamak Nearyrath, Robam Choun Por (Blessing Dance) is performed at the opening of ceremonies, weddings and formal occasions to greet and offer blessings and good wishes to the guests. The Kingdom of Cambodia believes in enacting a polite gesture towards the guests and treating them with dignity and respect. The Blessing Dance from the repertoire of Cambodian Classical Ballet is performed at various significant events and national holidays. This dance was earlier performed only for the Kings and their royal guests to rid the evil and bless the Royal Kingdom. Today, it is performed to bless formal events like weddings and welcome tourists from around the world.
Robam Choun Por is performed by a group of young Khmer girls in traditional Cambodian ballet costumes dressed as ‘Devata’ (angels) to bless the crowd with prosperity, happiness and success. The dance features elegant and graceful movements with the dancers holding golden goblets filled with fragrant flowers. The blossoms symbolically represent the blessings of God that are gently showered towards the audience signifying the blessings falling upon them.
3. Robam Moni Mekhala
Robam Moni Mekhala depicts storytelling at its best and therefore, it is one of the most popular traditional dances amongst Cambodians. The dance narrates a fierce fight between Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso for the control of a magical crystal ball owned by Moni Mekhala which causes rain, thunder and lightning. Ream Eyso tries to steal the magical crystal ball, the source of Moni Mekhala’s enormous powers and tries to provoke and entice her but to no avail. Moni Mekhala then mocks his efforts and defeats him by temporarily blinding him using the crystal ball with precision and grace. The fight continues with nourishing rains falling down on earth along with lightning and thunderstorms.
This dance symbolizes the victory of virtue over the seduction and the strength and immediate actions of an independent woman who used her intelligence to resist the evil.
The costumes for Robam Moni Mekhala are similar to the costumes of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia where women are adorned with large golden jewellery with body chains of various intricate designs and sizes. Robam Moni Mekhala is performed at least once in a year in sacred events known as “buong suong” that take place at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. During the rituals, the dancers act as messengers between the King and Gods asking for rains, fertile lands and the well-being of all Cambodians.Other Dance forms under The Royal Ballet of Cambodia:
- Robam Preah Thong Neang Neak
- Robam Neang Sovann Macha
- Robam Phlet (Fan Dance)
- Robam Tep Monorom (Dance of Heavenly Bliss)
- Robam Monosenchetna (Sentimental Dance)
Khmer Folk Dances
The folk dances of Cambodia are upbeat and usually faster-paced than classical Khmer dances, with movements and gestures not as stylized and intricate as classical dances. This art form is passed down from one generation to the next and is linked to the ethnicity of various traditional groups. Folk Dances are fun, playful and energetic and they engage the audience with cultural tales. Created in the 20th century, the folk dances accentuate various traditional and cultural tribes and describe the day-to-day routines and life of the countryside people. The folk dancers dress according to the characters they portray like farmers, peasants, hill tribes and Chams. Most of the stories are about love stories and folktales with the mahori orchestra playing in the background.
1. Robam Trot (Trot Dance)
The term Trot comes from Sanskrit meaning ‘to end’. The Trot Dance is performed prominently during the Khmer New Year to send off the back luck and negativity from the previous year and welcome the new year with positivity and celebrations. The dance represents a popular folktale of a hunter who received great fortune by the virtue of a deer. The hunter then created the Trot Dance as an ode to the forest spirits who brought him this prosperity. This animalistic celebration is presented by dancers dressed as peacocks wearing peacock feathers, oxens wearing horns and hunters.
2. Sneang Tosoang Dance
Sneang Tosoang Dance consists of dancers dressed as peacocks, tigers, oxen and other animals. This folk dance originates from the Phnum Kravanh District in the Pursat Province of Cambodia. The dance form depicts the lives of the Pear Community that share many traits from the dominant Khmer and Thai cultures.
3. Robam Neary Chea Chour
The Robam Neary Chea Chour is a traditional Khmer dance performed by young women in beautiful and colourful costumes and jewellery. The dance reminds the Khmer people of their rich cultural heritage that has been carried forward and nurtured through generations. This dance form is very prominent in the neighbouring South-East Asian countries.
4. Robam Neset (Khmer Fishing Dance)
This dynamic folk dance describes the daily lives of the farmers and fishermen who dance with traditional fishing equipment made out of bamboo. The dancers showcase different traditional fishing techniques using the Ang Rut and Chhneang. Love and romantic stories are a hit genre in the Khmer dances. In Robam Nesat, young girls and boys happen to meet at the fishing spot and fall in love while they fish and help out each other.Other Traditional Folk Dances of Cambodia:
- Robam Kngaok Pailin
- Robam Neary Chea Chour
- Robam Kom Areak
The Kingdom of Cambodia proves that art is the journey of a free soul and it keeps evolving and getting better.‘The Pearl of Asia’ will never fail to enchant you with its dazzling lifestyles and ethnic Khmer culture that is preserved and glorified for a thousand years now!