If you’ve ever been to Cambodia, or even done a quick Google search on the country, you’ve probably heard about traditional Apsara dance. Known for it’s elongated, elegant movements and ornate costumes, the ancient Apsara dance was revitalized in the 1940s for the Royal Cambodian Ballet by Princess Sisowath Kossamak, the mother of well-known supporter of the arts, Prince Sihanouk. Princess Soswath Kossamak trained her granddaughter, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, in the art of Apsara dance within the Royal Cambodian Ballet. Princess Norodom Buppha Devi would go onto become the company’s prima ballerina at age 18, and as the word wide face of Apsara dance for the rest of her life. Known for her intricate movements and tremendous ability, as well as for her striking beauty, the Princess toured internationally as an Apsara dancer as well as serving as the Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts.
The Apsara herself, far from being simply a random name chosen for the dance, is actually a spirit or angel (sometimes translated as a “nymph” in English) representing water and clouds — which translates within the fluidity of the dance. Spiritual Apsaras use their expertise to seduce and entertain — but they are far from powerless beings who exist to serve the needs of others. As messengers of peace between Gods and Kings, Apsaras would often use their dances and beauty to distract or ensnare those who threatened the peace or the power of those who ruled — both in heaven and on earth. They are also shape-shifters who can control the successes of those who gamble and play games, and are also often invoked in fertility ceremonies and rituals.
Though Apsara dance was traditionally performed only for the King, today it is performed for all Cambodians and tourists alike. Seen as the most important facet of traditional Cambodian classical dance, Apsara is still performed as a part of certain sacred ceremonies and award presentations. An enormous part of Cambodia’s national pride and heritage, Apsara dances often tell the stories depicted in the carvings of Angkor Wat. Traditionally, there are four primary roles in Apsara dance: the male, the female, the giant, and the monkey (usually played by a male dancer.) Though male dancers do play certain roles in Apsara dance, even today the art is practiced mostly by women. Apsara is also seen as a meeting point for different religions, as they stories invoked are seen in multiple religious texts and traditions. Though almost destroyed by the Khmer Rouge Regime, Apsara Dance continues today because of the surviving dancers, who committed themselves to its preservation by teaching the tradition to the next generation.
Apsara dance is known and recognized equally well around the world for its ornate costumes and headpieces. Many of the silk drapings (called sampot sarabap) and golden headpieces are modeled directly after the carvings of Angkor Wat. The lead dancer’s headpiece will have five points, while supporting dancers usually have only three. The principal dancer’s dress may also be in a different, brighter shade to set her apart. Sometimes, (though not as frequently in modern Apsara routines) a choker-like red or golden collar necklace, decorated with designs and copper adornments, are worn in addition to long earrings modeled after the krorsang flower. Perhaps the best-known accessories are the bracelets worn by Apsara dancers, of which there are four different kinds. Two kinds of anklets are also worn by the dancers, elegantly sliding and clinking together during performance. Finally, the sangvar, which can either be worn as a belt or carried on its own, is made of lightweight copper and decorated with golden and red floral designs.
If you are in Cambodia, Apsara dance is an experience not to be missed. A centerpiece of Cambodia’s culture and heritage, the tradition of Apsara dance is sure to continue for centuries to come.