What is the Cambodian Apsara Dance? (Origin, Meaning, History)

Cambodian culture is rich in dance, art, and song.  The colorful costumes favored during religious ceremonies have become legendary.  Currently, this once troubled country is open for tourism again, allowing people to begin discovering and rediscovering the beauty of the people, religion, and art that is Cambodia.  One form of art that encompasses many different media and has religious significance is Apsara.  Apsara is a dance performed by Cambodian girls and young women to welcome the Thai gods into a temple.  The Apsara is performed for religious reasons, honoring the Apsara, female divinities of the Khmer civilization.  Because of its significance, Apsara has also been represented in carvings that adorn the walls of some of the country’s oldest temples. 

Smooth and sinuous movement, as well as difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible contortions characterize the Apsara dance.  Dancers work for years to perfect difficult movements.  Attending these dances, which are typically held at temples in the evening hours, has become an event that tourists should not miss.  Additionally, many different school programs are aimed at teaching young girls the Apsara.  This is especially true at orphanages, since learning the Apsara offers these poor children the chance to have a profitable career.  Because of the many years of political instability in Cambodia, there are many of these orphans, and caring for them has become a worldwide cause.  However, the Apsara offers them a chance at a future using traditional Cambodian culture. 

Modern Apsara dancers are practicing an art that has been around for centuries.  Proof of this is shown at some of Cambodia’s oldest temples, such as Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat was built around the tenth century at the height of the Angkor Kingdom, often being compared in scale to the Pyramids in Egypt.  The Angkor site stretches over 120 miles and is composed of several different buildings, moats, walls, and temples, all built from massive stone blocks hauled to the area and constructed completely without mortar.  Carved representations of the Apsara divinities can be found prominently displayed on and in the famous Hindu temple of Angkor Wat on the site, along with several other prominent carvings.  Other examples of Apsara carvings can be found throughout Cambodia, and dancers often perform the Apsara dance in the presence of these ancient carvings. 

With the recent re-opening of Cambodia to western tourists, the Apsara dance has been exported to other Asian countries and to North America.  Cambodian dancers have performed at several festivals and their performances have ensured that this centuries-old dance will survive into the future.  In addition, carvings of dancing Apsaras are becoming popular art pieces, further benefiting a country trying to revive its export economy after many years of political struggles.

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