Apsara Dancers, a Graceful Tradition Carved in Stone
By Andrew Kolasinski
The living flesh of beautiful dancers mirrored the graceful forms carved into the stones on the walls of Angkor Wat temple.
The dancers rippled in sensuous movement.
I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to tour the temples with my friend Susan. At her insistence we tracked down a dinner theater in Siem Reap where Apsara Dancing is presented nightly to busloads of tourists on their way to see the temples.
“It’s a little like Hula Dancing. Some of the moves are the same; they use their hands very expressively. It’s sensual, and the dance always tells a story,” said Susan.
She had studied all kinds of folk and classical dance. Her Hawaiian ancestry led her to master Hula Dancing. I had her trained insights at my disposal.
Apsara means celestial maiden in Sanskrit. They are beautiful supernatural young women who live in the clouds. They appear throughout Hindu mythology. Sometimes they can influence fortune and gambling, but most often they are associated with fertility, and they dance to seduce men and gods.
Gestures of Apsara Dance are called kbach which translates as “meaning”. A finger pointed upwards symbolizes now; a sideways stance with a raised foot indicates flying. Other gestures represent things like flowers, leaves, and fruit. Hands, feet, arms, legs, and head all have a series of kbach, and different sequences and combinations create endless potential interpretations.
In the Khmer Kingdom during the Angkorean period, culture was heavily influenced by India and by Hindu imagery. Apsara figures are major elements at the temples of Angkor Wat. Beginning in the 12th century Apsara dancers became a part of the court of King Jayavarman VII.
Cambodia’s national dance had a renaissance in the 1950s when Queen Sisowath Kossomak Nearirath Serey Vatthana, wife of King Suramarit was inspired by a performance and devoted her energies and influence to promoting Apsara. The tradition was carried on until the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s when most of the country’s artist and intellectuals were murdered.
Today it is taught to school children, and performed during royal ceremonies as well as for tourists. The Cambodian Royal University of Fine Arts has the responsibility of propagating the dance, the study and perfection of which takes a dozen years.
Modern Apsara Dance performances can include male dancers to tell traditional folk stories of love, lust, pursuit and seduction. Fishermen or farmers in authentic looking folk costumes court their beloved. The show that I watched in Siem Reap featured elaborate costumes and a monumental set, a reproduction of the temple at Angkor Wat.
The music is played by orchestras called the Pin Peat. The instruments are all percussion: drums, gongs and xylophones, but the range of tones is so complete that it is hard to tell what the instruments might be.
The costumes (sampot sarabap) are also based on reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat. The tight embroidered and sequined silk gowns fit the dancers so precisely they must be sewn on for each performance.
Round five pointed headgear is worn by the lead dancer, and her under-dancers wear hats with three points.
Places to See Apsara Dancing in Siem Reap
Apsara Theatre, across from the Angkor Village Hotel is a dinner theater with shows every night at 8:30. The $25 admission charge includes a huge buffet and the one hour show.
Apsara Terrace at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor also has a one hour show with dinner included for $40.
Alliance Café in Siem Reap’s Wat Dammk area has a one hour show that includes shadow puppetry. The charge with dinner is $20.
La Noria Hotel on River Road includes a shadow puppet show with the dance performance. Admission to the one hour show is $6, and shows are Wednesdays and Sundays at 5:30.
The Temple Balcony on Pub Street has two hour shows at 5:30 everyday. Dinner is al carte and admission is free.
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, specialists in providing tours to Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.
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