Traditional Khmer Dancing Revived in Siem Reap Hotels

siem reap town – Khmer classical dancing, once almost extinguished by the Khmer Rouge, is enjoying a resurgence at hotels and restaurants here.

Fifty-one-year-old Sao Sarin, who trains dancers, said that up until 1995 dancers learned only for the love of the art, because there were no jobs to be had no matter how skilled they were.

“The hotels were not interested in Apsara dance,” she said. “I trained my students with no hope at all [that they would find em­ployment], but just to preserve the country’s culture.”

It was never really clear why the Khmer Rouge targeted classical dancers and musicians in their campaign to create a new so­ciety free from Western taint.

They professed to admire the achievements of Khmer em­pire, and yet when they were in power they slaughtered an estimated 90 percent of classical performers.

Historians theorize that Pol Pot, who for a time was raised by an aunt who was a court dancer, resented the fact that dancers frequently became concubines of the royal family.

Sao Sarin, who has trained about 100 dancers over the years, said she is delighted that they can now get paid for their art.

“We were afraid to lose our culture, but now we can make mon­ey for our group,” she said.

That is not to say that any performers are going to get rich quickly.

Sao Sarin’s 40-person troupe recently signed a five-month contract with the Sofitel Royal Ang­kor Hotel, one of the town’s two five-star establishments.

The hotel, which charges $135 per night for its least expensive room (not including taxes), pays the 40-member troupe $80 per performance.

Supachai Verapuchong, the hotel’s chairman, said he hired the troupe because his guests enjoy Khmer dancing very much.

“If they don’t go out at night, they can have dinner and watch the dancing,” he said.

Sao Sarin said her troupe is one of “six or seven” performing in Siem Reap, and that her dancers have typically studied between three and five years.

She said she hopes the current downturn in tourism will not weaken the fledgling dance industry, noting that costumes for her troupe cost  $1,000.

The dancers say they love the work, and getting paid for it is even better.

Von Chi Lay, 18, said he makes only $1 per night, but the money helps to pay for his En­glish classes.

Chap Dara, 19, is a more experienced dancer, having studied for seven years.

She dances the demanding role of Prince Rama in episodes of the Reamkar, the Khmer version of the Ramayana.

Chap Dara makes $2 for a few hours’ work, and she uses the money for lessons in Japanese and English. She hopes one day to get a job as a tour guide, which can pay from $20 to $30 per day.

So far, dancers in Phnom Penh are not finding the same kinds of tourist-related opportunities.

Var Sivorn, 42, is a highly skilled performer, having danced for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts since 1980 for a monthly salary of about $12.

She can make $5 per night when she is hired for TV performances, and between $2.50 and $3.75 if she is hired by a private company. Wedding ceremonies bring in up to $20, she said.

But not all dancers are willing to perform for the private sector. Vong Metry of the Apsara Art Association, which trains street children as classical dancers, says dancers there do not accept invitations to dance at private clubs, restaurants or companies.

“Khmer art is priceless,” she said. “We cannot bargain over price, because this is not food selling at the market.”

Apsara Art dancers perform at the government’s invitation for important foreign visitors, or at major ceremonies at high-price venues like the Hotel Le Royal, Inter-Continental, Sunway or Cambodiana hotels.

At $500 per performance, they don’t get many invitations, but  Vong Metry doesn’t mind. “Khmer art will lose its value, if we begin performing in clubs and restaurants for drunk people,” she said.



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