During the reign of the Khmer rouge the Apsara dance, which is a classical style dance dating back to the Angkorean era, nearly vanished. However, the dance has been making a comeback in Cambodia and is now a popular tourist attraction up and down the country particularly in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The dances were originally performed in the Angkor temples where performances were held for private and exclusive dinners or for important meetings. The Apsara dance is a traditional Cambodian dance which can trace its roots back to the 7th century according to carvings found at Angkor Wat and the ancient city of Angkor Thom which depicts Apsaras dancing on the stone.
The dance finds its roots in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies and according to the Hindu mythology, Apsaras were beautiful female creatures that descended from heaven to entertain Gods and Kings with their dance. The traditional dance is meaningful in many ways as it highlights the link between the 3 religions- Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism on which Cambodia has been built upon. In the dance itself every single movement of the fingers has a particular meaning. It can worship the spirits of nature by depicting a blossoming flower or refer to one of the hundreds legends of Buddhism or Hinduism.
The Apsara dancers are adorned with elegant silk clothing with floral motifs, magnificent headdresses and jewelries. Apsara dancing is one of two elements of classical ballet, the other being “today” dancing, the depiction of early myths. Many of the dances involve performing a fragment of the Ramayana, the ancient Indian epic that is one and a half times as long as the Odyssey.
During the reign of Jayavarman VII it was said that there were more than 3000 Aspara dancers that performed in front of the king. The dance was such a unique and special skill that when the Thais raided Angkor in the 15th century, they kidnapped a selection of dancers back to Thailand with them.
In 1940s, Queen Sisowath Kossomak Nearirath Serey Vathana, visited the Sothearath primary school and was impressed by an inspirational angkor apsara dance performed by young school children in the paper apsara costume including Crown, Sampot and Flower, all referencing Aspara represented at Angkor Wat. The Queen was so impressed that she decided to recreate the dance, which led her first granddaughter, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi to become the first professional Apsara dancer of the modern era.
Nowadays These days, the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh is responsibility for Aspara training and takes at least six years for students just to learn the 1500 intricate positions starting from as young as 7 years old. In the main hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh you’ll find many performances of Apsara dance.