In some traditional Cambodian dance the hands tell a story. The music starts, the dancers appear, and as fingers arch impossibly back the story begins, the shapes formed by the fingers showing the timeless cycle of agriculture: birth, death, rebirth.
The palms turn down and the image recalls a hand planting a seed. A finger points to the ceiling and the audience sees a tree take root. A closed hand makes a flower, another form shows the fruit sprouting from the branch and then, with a flick of the finger, the fruit falls.
These stories come to life every morning at the dance studio of Vong Metry, a classically trained performer who is waging a battle to keep her art alive. Her troops are the poor and homeless children from her Tuol Kok neighborhood who come to her performance space every day to practice these ancient dances.
Her enemies are television and the cheaply made karaoke videos that pervade modern Khmer life, most of them borrowing more from Western soap operas than from anything Cambodian.
That, or song-and-dance TV where tightly-wrapped women dance poorly to junky rock-and-roll.
“Four years ago I turned on the television and thought, ‘This is not Cambodian dancing,’” said Vong Metry, sitting at the Apsara Arts Association studio where she teaches. “It was all this disco and,” she pauses to search for the right word, “it was cha-cha-cha.”
Nowhere on television did she see the stag dances of Siem Reap and Battambang that she studied at the Royal University for Fine Arts. The tree-worshipping spirit dance of Koh Kong was lost on the new generation. The mystical trance dances of northern Cambodia were nowhere to be found amid the cha-cha-cha.
Vong Metry is changing that. Her original class of eight students, begun in 1998, has mushroomed into 172 performers aged 4 to 25 years old, two-thirds of them girls. The association requires 80 staff members, including 22 teachers.
The classes are free for the children. A US-donor, the Kasumisou Foundation, pays $2,050 every month to keep the dancers and musicians in costumes, buy traditional instruments, pay the teachers and feed everyone, including 26 orphans who live at the association building.
Earlier this year, Vong Metry made the biggest advance yet: a $70,000 performance space financed by Unesco. The dancers who used to practice in the basement of the orphanage and childcare center moved inside the new building to practice on a smooth, wooden floor shaded by a high, wooden ceiling.
Several resident teachers at the Apsara association—all of them graduates of the Royal University of Fine Arts—wandered among the classes on a recent morning, correcting hand positions, tuning instruments, talking softly to the children as they practiced.
Today Vong Metry’s association is the only one of its kind in Cambodia. The students are largely orphans, or from very poor homes. Some of them will become the breadwinners in their family when they graduate and move out to perform.
“I love it so much,” said Chhun Pich Maly, one of the original eight students at the association. “I came here with my mother and the teacher in here asked me ‘Do you really want to learn?’ I answered I love dancing.”
The center held one of its first performances at the new center last month. Vong Metry said she wants to have two performances every month.
There audience members could see the dances that tell the story of farming life in Cambodia, of fishing along the Tonle Sap, or the more ancient dances taken from the Raemker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana which was commissioned in the early Angkorian period.
A healthy sense of urgency underscores the mission of the Apsara Arts Association: Everyone seems to fear the loss of Khmer culture. The director of the school has three aims: It shouldn’t be too surprising that saving Khmer culture is one of them. If art collapses, culture has failed, she said.
“No other nationality can help us prevent this and restore what has been lost,” said Chhay Sopha, who chairs the association. They were surprised to find the students as concerned as they were, said teacher Vong Phimean.
A more practical aim underscores much of what goes on at the center: some of the children will find work and earn a living off of their art. The school helps the poorest children, but some of these are hard to reach because they often must leave to work for their parents.
Some of the students seem to sense this. They diligently practiced their routines on a recent morning as Planes flew overhead on their way to Pochentong and motorcycles trundled past on the newly paved street outside the association. Inside, dancer’s hands turned over and over again to show a seed being planted.
“Time is very important to me and even though I have a little time I still come here to train,” said student Soun Bopha, 14. “If I go to school in the morning I come here in the evening.”