Forty children move in unison at the bottom of a sloped driveway behind Royal Phnom Penh University. Their high-pitched voices sing the hypnotic music of traditional dance.
The little girls glide across the stage, arms in the air. The boys move more forcefully, imitating frogs and monkeys. They dance in circles, forming a lotus flower. A 3-year-old is planted in the center of the circle, as others spin and dip around her. It is the Flower Dance.
“If a culture is not used, it sinks down and means nothing,” says Vong Metri, the dance instructor and co-founder of Apsara Arts Association. “Every country has its own culture. We wish to protect, promote and develop our own culture.”
Concerned that traditional Khmer dance was being taught only to an elite few, Vong Metri and her husband, Chhay Sopha, started the Apsara Arts Association in May to teach dance to younger children and to those who cannot afford Phnom Penh’s University of Fine Arts.
Students study the basic components of Apsara dancing, learn individual steps and work on their own costumes.
Vong Metri, 44, and Sam Sathya, a recent graduate of the University of Fine Arts, teach the children without charge and contribute their own money to pay for the students’ costumes.
Nearly 70 children now attend the classes, which are held six days a week in the front yard of Vong Metri’s home. Most students are the children of moto-taxi drivers and factory workers.
“I like all the dances because they are related to culture and the history of many centuries ago,” said one student, Vong Phi Mean, who was studying the final dance, the Apsara.
For Vong Metri, teaching is a way of passing on a gift that has meant so much to her. She graduated from the University of Fine Arts in 1970 and began a long career as an accomplished Apsara dancer and instructor. She taught at the universi ty from 1979 to 1994.
Vong Metri’s career was interrupted by the Khmer Rouge’s horrific 1975-78 rule, when those considered intellectuals were killed and traditional Cambodian culture was banned.
Vong Metri survived by joining most of the rest of the population in working on farming collectives, posing as a peasant woman. But even the Khmer Rouge could not take her art completely away.
“When we were in the fields, we had a new dance,” she recalls. “Our dance was digging the ground. Our dance was chopping the trees.”