Reviving Khmer Arts

School Teaches Poor Children Traditional Dance, Music

Lunch time is approaching at the tiny dance school just north of Phnom Penh in O’Russei Keo district’s dusty Tomnap village, but there is still work to be done.

Nearly 50 students, ages four to 17, encircle the school’s patio.

At the stern instruction of Vong Metry, traditional Khmer dance music strikes up courtesy of a band of students. The music gains a solid rhythm and the students surrounding the pink-tiled patio begin an accompanied chorus and clap sequence.

Two groups of boys and girls, standing on opposite sides of the crowd, enter the empty space in the middle.

They begin the Harvest Dance.

First is the planting of the seed. The dancers mimic the cradling of a casket and the throwing of seed, bent over for precision planting, while swaying to the music.

Then the movements shift, and they are no longer planting, but protecting the crop from such enemies as birds.

The music, and soft chants of the surrounding chorus, has drawn attention from residents of Tomnap village. Against the bamboo fence, a group of onlookers, including some parents, has gathered to watch.

Just as the students are shoeing away the birds by flailing their arms, a heavy set woman in a floral-print shirt steps in with a forceful tug on one of the male students’ shoulders, correcting his spacing with the other dancers.

The final phase of the Harvest Dance is the collecting of the crop. Crouched over, the dancers gather the rice, ending the sequence with a bow to the audience.

The music stops and the children scatter for lunch. Some group together and chat, or snatch their backpacks and head toward the street for home. Others snack on mango slices and prepare for lunch-hour English classes. Some of the musicians continue practicing their instruments.

It is here in Tomnap village, in the western outskirts of town, where Vong Metry has transformed her modest home into a cultural dance school for area kids.

In this poverty stricken area of Phnom Penh, Vong Metry says Khmer culture has one foot in the grave, if it is not already dead. But her Apsara Arts Association is doing its best to slowly revive culture in this part of town—notorious for its brothels—by targeting its youth.

“I wrote a sign in front of my house saying ‘Anyone interested in performing dance, please list your name,’” she says.

There are 162 students training at Apsara. She explains the majority of her students do not go to public schools because their parents cannot afford to send them or can not arrange transportation.

For this reason, Vong Metry, 46, offers her training for free, and only accepts children in desperate need of a new direction. If it weren’t for her Apsara Arts Association, she says, her students would probably be sniffing glue, and possibly be lost to child prostitution.

Vong Metry began her dance education in considerably better surroundings, being trained at the Royal Palace from the age of four until Lon Nol overthrew then Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

For those less fortunate, she said, there is her school, which aims to reduce the difficulties of families that have no money to send their children to school, to preserve the Cambodian culture and to pull area children away from what Vong Metry calls a “bad society.”

“I like this school very much,” 8-year-old Phirum Chantrea says. “I think I will continue dancing until I grow up.”

Phirum Chantrea’s mother, On Nasy, says she knew her daughter had a gift for cultural dance when she would catch her mirroring Khmer dancers on television.

So she began sending Phirum Chantrea to Apsara Arts Association in December because it was only a few kilometers from their home. Since then Phirum Chantrea’s 4-year-old sister has joined her at Apsara, while Phirum Chantrea has begun additional schooling at the Phnom Penh School of Fine Arts.

On Nasy believes that training such as traditional dance early in a child’s life provides them with direction, and ultimately leads to a good life.

“I think that if my daughters are good dancers, then in the future they will have good lives,” she says.

In two years, when her students have become proficient in traditional dance and singing, Vong Metry would like to send some of them to the countryside to show poor kids about the Khmer culture.

While many of Apsara’s students are learning the styles of Khmer dancing, many also reap the benefits of the school’s English classes. Vong Metry says she would ultimately like to expand the school’s curriculum beyond dance, singing, reading and writing. She eventually hopes to offer instruction in crafts, hygiene and social studies.

Pen Yet, secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, says schools like Apsara are a great idea because today’s youth are so distracted by television and “rock music.”

“I want to see people loving our culture more than rock music,” Pen Yet says. “We do not reject foreign culture, or modern art, but we would like Khmer children to clearly know their own culture.”

Other government officials support the idea of private performing arts schools, but have reservations.

Hang Soth, a director of the Performing Arts Department at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said he is wary that the Apsara Arts Association, and other independently-run art and dance schools, might not be teaching to the standards of the ministry.

“I’m afraid the art associations might be driving the culture’s value down,” Hang Soth says.

The ministry supervises 23 schools through out the country.

Despite receiving responses that are sometimes less than positive, Vong Metry presses on.

Her mission, she said, is too important to stop.

“If I, and other artists, do not teach young kids about our culture, then it will die.”



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