Apsara dance is one of the cultural elements of Cambodia no one should miss. According to the Hindu mythology, Apsaras were beautiful female creatures that descended from heaven to entertain Gods and Kings with their dance. Their name means “celestial dancers” in ancient Sanskrit. Legend has it that they were born from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and thus, they are messengers of peace between Kings on earth and Gods in heaven.
Dated back to the 7th century, Apsara dance was almost eradicated during the Khmer Rouge regime (read here about the Tuol Sleng Prison and the Killing Fields), when 90% of the artists were killed. Princess Bopha Devi, daughter of the former and half-sister of the current king, helped revive the dance, as a dancer herself and Director of Royal Ballet of Cambodia.
There are different ways to witness this dance. One is as a tourist while having dinner. The other one is as a traveller during a truly artistic setting by the Sacred Dancers of Angkor. Their performance is twice as expensive ($30 per person), but the money goes towards educating kids. It is the only dance school in Cambodia’s countryside.
The venue is called “Divine Sala”, and is close to Angkor National Museum, around 2.5km from Pub Street. We took a remork to the venue, and the driver offered to wait for us, despite having haggled the price down. Maybe it was a sign of Cambodian politeness. Maybe the guy was just smart, as we ended up rewarding his move with the original price he had asked for. Win-win.
Apsara dance is an almost spiritual experience
We were the second to arrive and occupy two of the 24 seats. At 7pm sharp, a lady came on stage and carried out a small ritual with the four male musicians. Then the act commenced. Ten female Apsara dancers occupied the scene with their majestic outfits and mysterious moves.
The hand gestures (“kbach”) are the main component of the dance. There are about 1,500 gestures and it takes six years of training to master all of them.
We were not allowed to take photos with a dSLR camera, only with a mobile phone – no flash of course, and no video either. We sat through the performance, speechless and mesmerized by the acts, all inspired by legends of the Mahabarrata and the Ramayana depicted on Angkor Wat.
At the end of the performance, they blessed us, tied a white string around our wrists, and treated us with an ice tea.
Why see it for yourself?
UNESCO has included Apsara dance and the Royal of Cambodia in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, among the Mediterranean diet and Peking Opera.
Sacred Dancers of Angkor is supported by the Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia (NKFC), a charity that, for over 20 years, has supported 14 villages in the Angkor area. They perform only twice a week, on Wednesday and Sunday, and you can book your tickets here.