Cambodian Classical Dance: A Khmerlette’s Perspective
While I was in the Bay Area for college, I was fortunate to learn some Cambodian classical dance in Berkeley (with Prumsodun Ok) and San Jose. It was challenging since I was introduced to it as a late teen, but fun! However, serious dancers begin at a young age. Johnny Mam created an intimate half-hour documentary following one such dancer, Tiffany Lytle, a half-Danish khmerlette. After watching, I really empathized with Tiffany’s struggles as a young woman, dancer, and perfectionist. I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to ask her a few questions. (by Violetta)
1. How do you feel about Classical Dance as a means to be a “good Cambodian girl (or boy)?” Was there any more pressure for you to be a good Cambodian girl because you are of mixed ethnicities?
I personally did not start doing Cambodian Classical Dance as a means to appease any cultural ideologies or to please my family. I began dancing because I fell in love with the beauty and the challenge of the choreography. I did not necessarily feel the pressure to be a good Cambodian child because of the dance, rather I felt that I would build my skill and learn better if I followed the practices of Cambodian Dance in detail.
Respect for one’s parents and elders is a great way to be a “good Cambodian kid.” I know that my mother was exceedingly proud that I chose to build my skill in this ancient field of practice. Seeing her joy when we hit the stage is extremely rewarding, and I encourage others to try Cambodian dance at least once, so that their parents can feel the same. It is always a privilege to bring entertainment and a reminder of ancient Khmer culture to a group of people who have experienced so much loss and tragedy in the past.
2. What kinds of lessons can Cambodia American youth learn from dance about the culture and being “Cambodian?”
As a Cambodian Classical dance student, you learn the history of the Khmer culture through stories and legendary tales. These stories are taught through the dance’s movements, music, and mythical content. You also learn about the traditional practices of prayer for blessing purposes. This shows the link between Khmer spirituality and classical dance/music performance or practice. I know I developed a strong work ethic in dance, fostered by my instructors and fellow class mates. This transcended throughout all aspects of my life, including school and work. The intense family-style relationships that you develop in a community like this teach you so many untold lessons, from how to deal with favoritism and conflict, to how to support and nourish individual members toward success.
The history, culture and community of the Khmer people is very unique, and being involved in a dance group like this gives you a little view into understanding of the ideas and rationale that are integrated in the Cambodian culture.
3. What are some ways the teaching style of Cambodian dance instructors differ from American dance instructors you’ve worked with, that might illustrate something about Cambodian culture?
The dance world is something that most people do not understand. Most people do not get to see and feel what it is like growing up in this type of society where the teacher or director reigns supreme, while maintaining a love/hate relationship with the students. Dance instructors all over the world are strict, and everyone has their way of getting students to perfect their craft. Instructors in the US tend to be a little more lenient than the Cambodian instructors, but I do notice that as time goes on, Khmer instructors’ tough shells become cracked as they acclimate to relaxed American culture. Power structures are the same as well, but are tailored towards the traditional Cambodian customs and practices of respect. When a teacher enters the room, the students place their hands together, bow their heads to sampeah and greet her (or him) in Khmer. The dancers are also taught to include past and present teachers in their blessing/thankfulness prayers before class begins. The teacher is the most influential person in the room and typically holds the most power. They are the decision makers, which means that their power comes with the responsibility to be fair and objective in casting roles in dances.
4. Have you faced discrimination because of your color or body type in other forms of dance? How might ideals for physical appearance across different forms of dance be influenced by the mainstream culture (e.g., American ideals changing what they look for in dancers for Cambodian Classical Dance)?
Yes, I admit I have been a victim of discrimination based on appearance. Every single dancer goes through it at some point, but it feels worse when the thing you are being criticized for is out for your control. My mixed heritage and weight management issues had me standing at the back of the stage for years, until my undeniable skill and passion sent me sprinting for the lead roles in dances. I had to want the roles badly enough that the teacher noticed. I had to embody the persona of the soloist and the leader before I would be looked at. I had to show them that anyone could dance as well as a pure Cambodian.
You have to understand that much of the pride held for Cambodian dance is in the idea of Nationalism and pride of being Cambodian…The only thing that made me feel different as a child in Khmer dance was that I was a little overweight, and didn’t fully understand the language and music…I even was directly told by one of the dance moms to stop eating red meat, because it would make me fatter and the costumes wouldn’t fit me anymore. There is no worse feeling than having a community that you thought you were apart of betray you and criticize your body. Experiences like these led me to denying myself food and fostering a negative self image. Very similar things have happened to my friends in other dance forms.
In the Ballet, we hear stories of mean teachers that not only criticize skill, but appearance. The ideal body that is strived for in the dance world is completely influenced by media and modern ideals of beauty…In ballet they love thin dancers with graceful extensions and delicate features. In Cambodian Classical dance, they want the girl that can represent the entire nation with her beauty. Small-waisted individuals with beautiful faces, long dark hair and light skin are the ideal Apsara-like dancers. What they look for in Cambodian Classical dance remains the same today as it did years ago in ancient times, but what is changing is the perception that those who do not fit into the “ideal” category are not allowed to dance…I was never denied the right to dance due to my size or color; I was only discriminated against when it came time to choose a featured dancer. Thankfully we as a nation have come together to teach and accept those who are willing to learn this skill.