Dancing for the Gods

Admin 23 September 2013 0 comment

A troupe of 25 performers known as the Sacred Dancers of Angkor are embarking on a tour of Boston, Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles, in a miraculous comeback for an art form once teetering on the edge of extinction

Words by Jim Algie/ Photos provided by the NFKC

The Sacred Dancers of Angkor performed their first international dance ritual for thousands of worshipers gathered at the Wat Phou temple in Laos in early 2012

During the Khmer Rouge’s time of tyranny from 1975 to 1979, around 90% of Cambodia’s musicians, artists, dancers, teachers, and anyone wearing glasses who looked the least bit scholarly, perished or was executed. As a tragic consequence, the nation lost much of its cultural soul and intellectual heart.

When Ravynn Karet Coxon first visited the villages around the district of Banteay Srei, famous for its 10th century Temple of Women, one of Angkor’s most impeccably preserved temples, she was appalled by the villagers’ subhuman living conditions.

The Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia that she founded brought many positive changes and advancements to the area. But something was still amiss. That missing link between prosperity and happiness was revealed when the NGO started a small school to train rural girls in the complex and sinuous body language of Angkor-era dances.

As she pointed out, “I realized that our earlier efforts had gone to improving physical things — homes, crops, water supply — but even then, the eyes were still empty. But now, through the wellspring of Khmer traditions, we are reviving ancient strengths and sacred arts that heal villagers and their children from the inside. For the first time, I clearly see that we are truly nourishing the souls of our people.”

The dancers conduct a purification ritual at the disputed Preah Vihear Temple, near the border with Thailand

Taking its first teetering baby steps back in 2007, the Preah Ream Boppha Devi NKFC Conservatoire has now trained more than 170 dancers and musicians, notching up some considerable successes along the way, such as putting on a performance for King Sihamoni at the Royal Palace four years ago, and doing shows and purification rituals at Cambodian temples and Wat Phou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos.

Now they are heading out on their biggest tour to date. From the middle of September until October 22, they will be mesmerizing crowds and giving workshops at venues in Boston, New York, Washington and Los Angeles, so they can bring these traditions to a wider audience and help Cambodian-Americans to plug into the circuit board of the country’s electrifying legacy in the arts and the religious realm.

Even so, the troupe remains drastically underfunded. There is no electricity at the thatched-roof huts where they rehearse in Cambodia. The cassette player which plays the music they practice to is powered by a car battery.

The students take classes at the drastically underfunded school.

In order for the students to be able to study for free at the school, donors must be found for each youngster. The cost is less than US$5 per week. Sponsoring a young dancer or musician is easy, quick and rewarding. This is more than mere philanthropy – it’s a chance to keep these venerable traditions alive and to inspire the younger generation to treasure them.

Dance has long held a sacred place in the kingdom, and the country’s dancers are revered as some of the finest in Southeast Asia. (One legend has it that a Thai king was so smitten by Khmer dancers that he kidnapped a troupe of them and kept them at his palace so they could teach their skills to his dancers, which helps to explain the similarities between the two art forms.)

the king
A dancer received a gift from King Sihamoni after a performance at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in 2009.

During their performances in the United States, the Sacred Dancers of Angkok will also be doing boung suoung (a ceremony of propitiation to appease the gods).  This is the only such troupe in Cambodia which is also schooled in meditation. Their specialty is sacred dance rituals designed to revere and purify the country’s oldest temples.

Watching them in action it’s as if the angels adorning the walls and pillars of Angkor Wat have climbed down and, dressed in white costumes with elaborate crowns, are reenacting millennium-old dances and rituals that centuries of warfare – and even genocide – could not destroy.

royal palace
The troupe performs at the Royal Palace for King Sihamoni

As Ravynn Karet Coxen explained, “In Cambodia, dance is much more than entertainment or even art; dance is our way to speak to our gods and to thank them for the gifts of this rich land that we inhabit. The discipline, power and purity of Cambodian dance embraces all our religious and cultural values that have been passed down to us since the time of Angkor.”

See for more information.

Sacred Dancers of Angkor US Tour Overview

BOSTON September 14 – 23

NEW YORK September 23 – 30

WASHINGTON DC October 1 – 10

LOS ANGELES October 10 – 22

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