Apsara Dance: A Story of Survival

Last July I went to beautifully photogenic Cambodia for a story-telling workshop expertly led by my good friend Karl Grobl. The main assignment of the workshop was to create a photo essay and subsequently develop a short multimedia presentation. In this post, I will share some of the images I made for this project, and I will post a short clip of the presentation later.

The first challenge was to find a suitable topic. I had visited Cambodia many years ago and spent some time in Siem Reap, which was our base for the first week. As everybody else visiting Siem Reap, I had been in awe of the fabulous temples from the Angkor period. But I also had been quite taken by the elegance and beauty of Cambodian classical dance, particularly the Apsara dance, a famous classical piece based on the beautiful female figures carved in the stone of the majestic Angkor temples who bear that name.

I had also learned that during the Khmer Rouge regime, Pol Pot had tragically forbidden all arts, including dance, and that all artists had to leave the country, go underground, or be killed. It is said that an astounding 90% of all Cambodian classical artists perished between 1975 and 1979. After the fall of the regime, the country wanted to revive their sacred artistic traditions, while at the same time dealing with many other challenges. I was hoping that efforts to resurrect Cambodian classical dance could make an appealing story.

But of course, no interesting story turns out exactly the way it is planned. While learning all I could about the survival of the art form, I found another aspect of the story even more interesting: classical dance is providing a means of economic survival to a number of young women whose other options would be distinctly undesirable. Tourists, during their visit to Siem Reap, want to see and be seen with the beautiful Apsaras.

So young women wearing costumes of Apsaras (and other characters portrayed in traditional dances) can be seen in various locations, including on the premises of the beautiful Bayon temple, willing to be photographed by and with tourists for a fee that is modest for the tourists but a meal ticket for them and their families.

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But the posing for tourist snapshots is not their main source of income. That comes from the dance performances that one can see in all types of establishments in Siem Reap, from the local Khmer BBQ to the 5-star hotels. Performing, however, requires training that not everyone can afford. I met a young woman, So Channou, who is trying to address this problem in her own way. She is a 31-year-old former dancer who now manages a small group of performers. With this troupe’s performances, So Channou is trying to make the training available to young girls facing often dire life challenges. She has started a small school, the Apsara Sangva Pich, teaching classical dance to young girls for free and then getting them to perform so that they can earn some much-needed income. When asked why she was doing this, she answered that this is how she was helped as a young girl and that it is time for her to do the same. I went to visit So Channou at her school during one of her classes. There she teaches dance and classical music to up to 20 students, not including her 4-year old daughter who clearly is an aspiring Apsara and as you will see, in the practice sessions, she charmingly steals the show.

In my next post, I’ll share images of the time I spent with two of So Channou’s students that I got to know.


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22 Responses

  1. France! I LOVE your story topic and am looking forward to more of your beautiful images. Having been to Cambodia twice and photographed the Aspara dancers while posing (and thus just brushing a very shallow surface of their lives for my purposes), I’m so very interested in your in-depth story. So Channou’s efforts to pass on this storied culture and provide income for young girls is inspirational. Fantastic! Get that follow-up posted soon!

    1. Thanks Kathy, I am sure your images of Apsaras are great. And I hope I did not give you a headache ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. France,
    I like the way you dove into the story. The narrative adds a lot to the pictures, Letting us know what is going on behind the scenes.
    The images are lovely, and I especially love the detail of the hands and feet.

    1. Tania, Thanks so much. Really appreciate your feedback. I am sure I could learn a lot about how to tell stories from you. Best, France

  3. France, I look forward to seeing your audio visual presentation. I loved reading and seeing the in depth study of the Aspara dancers. I just wish I had been there with you to capture the images. Great work once again my friend ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks Catherine, Nice hearing from you. Really wish you had been there too (as I am sure Karl does as well)!

  4. Lovely! I see you are playing with angles a lot. Makes the photos unusually interesting.
    You sure get around! Keep on going, girl!

  5. Wonderful work, France. An inspired choice of topic, too, as it’s interesting for the viewer to get a “behind the scenes” glimpse of the dancers’ world. You really captured the grace of the dancers at So Channou’s school. Looking forward to more!

    1. Barbara, Always a challenge to narrow down on a topic, especially when there is so much going on around you. I am glad you like the Apsara story. These young women work very hard. Stay tuned ;-), France

  6. Fascinating blog about the Apsara dancers, France. I love the focus on the hands and feet, but the little girl clearly steals the show…esp the photo of her practicing her hand and feet moves. Just adorable!

    1. Thanks Sally, Yes, this little girl was a performer. Initially I was trying to not include her in my shots and then I gave up as she would appear in front of my lens every time I pressed the shutter. She is going to be a star. My best birthday wishes to you. France

  7. loved the narrative and the images. love the use of the wide angle lens. so much beauty in their faces, their hands , their respect and love of apsara. great work.

  8. Very interesting to learn about the Apsara dance and to see the ornate dress and jewelry in your photographs.I am still stuck on the information that they think 90% of Cambodians in the classical arts perished between 1975 -79, unfathomable…not that long ago .

    1. Dear Emilie, Sooooo sorry for the very late reply. I am back from a 3-week trip to Ladakh (which should have included Kashmir) with no internet access at all. Yes, the genocide in Cambodia is beyond belief. It is estimated that more than 20% of the population was killed. As I am sure you know, there are still trials going on attempting to held some people accountable. Surely, an horrific part of history that the world should have learned something from. At least one would hope.

  9. What beautiful images. The banner at the top is especially haunting. The narrative you described is righteous in its own way, as the practice of an ancient art form is used for survival. Enjoyed your post thoroughly.

    1. Dear Michelle, Thank you for visiting the blog and thank you for your kind words. I greatly enjoyed spending time with these dancers and learning about their art. I am glad you enjoyed learning about it too. All the best,


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