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Youthful Optimism

[Chey Chankethya, "Kov", age 16, at the School of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh, March 24, 2000]

March 2000

It was a simple enough assignment - follow a student from Phnom Penh's School of Fine Arts around for the day with the purpose of writing a story, "A Day in the Life of an Apsara Dancer". A regular feature for Bangkok-based Traveller magazine, "A Day in the Life of..." exists to promote a cultural or social aspect of one of the Southeast Asian countries by detailing a typical day of someone involved in the particular activity.

Classical Cambodian dance, like so much of traditional Khmer culture, was nearly destroyed under the Khmer Rouge. Dancers were executed en masse and all written records of the dance were annihilated as well. The Khmer Rouge had come within a hair width of destroying classical dance forever. However, a handful of dancers did survive the holocaust and with those dancers who were safely living overseas, the arduous restoration process began almost immediately following the downfall of the Khmer Rouge. The School of Fine Arts, located in the northern part of Phnom Penh, reopened in 1979 and the slow process of recovering the Cambodian culture began.

The origins of Cambodian dance can be traced to the 9th century. A generous amount of Indian influence added to a combination of Javanese and indigenous culture spawned the creation of Khmer classical dance. Throughout the height of the Angkor Empire dancers gave performances for the king under the full moon. Ancient kings were divine entities and as such the dancers were seen as messengers of the gods. Following the overthrow of Angkor in 1432 by the Siamese armies, a Thai influence permeated the Khmer dance adding to its already complicated nature. Tragically, due to the massive content of dance, not all could be recovered from what few written records escaped destruction or from the memories of the survivors of Pol Potís genocide.

Despite the Khmer Rougeís best efforts, classical dance did survive. Lean years followed, but now, 21 years later itís safe to say that the dance has been restored.


Iíve spent a lot of time looking into some of the more depressing problems that exist in Cambodia - garbage scavengers, homeless children, temple kids; enough of this and youíd think Cambodia is nothing but a corrupt, desperate, hopeless country. Not so. In doing this "A Day in the Life" profile I got the added surprise bonus of meeting a mature, socially aware, idealistic, compassionate teenager that left me more optimistic about the future of Cambodia than ever before.

Chey Chankethya, "Kov" to her friends, (it's pronounced Ku-at, I have absolutely no idea where she got the spelling and would probably do better not to think too hard about it) is 16 years old and is now a new graduate of Phnom Penh's School of Fine Arts. Located on 70th Street near the Japanese Bridge, it's operated under the Ministry of Culture. Funding is a problem for the school and the facilities are in predictably poor physical shape. But poor facilities not withstanding, the School of Fine Arts continues to be the focal point for the instruction and preservation of Khmer culture.

Dance lessons are held in a large, dark, cavernous room. The students first change from their school uniforms into their dance clothes in a back room before spending about four hours every morning in dance practice.

Though now graduated, Kov remains a member of the Royal Ballet. She has danced for ten years and knows about 300 different dances. She had the honor of being one of the sixteen students chosen for the Royal Ballet's celebrated European tour in the fall of 1999.

This tour was a watershed for Cambodian dance standing as final confirmation that the dance has made a full and successful comeback from the brink of complete destruction two decades ago. Funded entirely by ticket sales, the two-month, half million-dollar trip included thirty-two performances staged in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Belgium. 

photos: left: Kov and her dance partner, Meas Chanvatey ("Mao")
right: Kov's friend, Phang Chamnan, 17, a dancer today and an aspiring English teacher tomorrow

During a break I had a chance to speak with Kov and three of her fellow dancers about the present and future. Kov hopes in the future to study overseas and someday become a lawyer. All the girls want to dance professionally for the rest of their lives, however, dancing is not a full-time profession. But itís not for money - they all love dance and have deep pride in their culture. None of them is ignorant of the near destruction of that culture some two decades ago.

Four young dancers - Kov, Mao, Phang Chamnan, and Seang Seareirattana

Kov already has a very good command of the English language as does her friend, Phang Chamnan, who hopes one day to be an English teacher. While I was eminently impressed with Kov's ability to communicate in English (this was one assignment I did not need an interpreter for) she told me that she speaks French even better than she speaks English. Trilingual at 16. Not bad.

dancing takes a break as Kov's brother drives her down Monivong Blvd to her daily French lesson

Later that day, some of the students were at the Chatomuk Theatre to attend a presentation by the Royal Ballet followed by a special awards ceremony where the Minister of Culture, Samdech Preah Ream Norodom Buppha Devi, bestowed honor on a number of individuals for long-standing contributions to Cambodian culture.

Kov and friends at the Chatomuk Theatre, Phnom Penh

The marathon event began with about an hour of speeches, during which I sat in the back of the theater talking with Kov. The more we talked the more impressed I became with this teenager. Her social awareness, idealism, and maturity are remarkable.

Although she wants to study abroad she is adamant about returning to Cambodia to use whatever foreign education she gets for the betterment of Cambodia. I only hope that if she does get to study overseas that her idealism doesnít fall by the wayside when she gets a full taste of western life. At least sheís already been overseas twice and hasnít yet developed a case of emigration blues.

She wants to be a lawyer and she had a lot to say about the present status of the legal system in Cambodia, especially on the domestic front. She complained about impunity at all levels, and about domestic violence and how her society still generally considers it a private matter that leaves the men unpunished. She spoke out against the inequality between men and women - under the law, in educational opportunities, and in societal attitudes. And she complained about the overall lack of quality in education in her country. For the entire hour we talked about a variety of social problems, womenís problems, education, poverty, the lack of an independent justice system, mob vigilantism, etc. She was well aware of the many problems in her country and spoke intelligently on all of them. But despite all these negatives, she is resolute that she loves her country and culture and has no desire to abandon it. She has every desire to stay and improve it, even if it takes decades, and she knows that it may.

She is also mindful that she and her friends belong to a privileged segment of society. Though Kov's family is not rich by western standards, they are much better off than the majority of Cambodian citizens. Many of the School of Fine Arts students come from the better side of Cambodian society, the daughters of government officials, or like Kov, daughters of the merchant class. She admits sheís lucky to have been born into a good family and is well aware that most Cambodians her age are not so lucky. She feels a duty to help that majority.

During the concluding speeches, Kov and I moved to some seats close to some of her friends. Serious discussions concluded, and now in the presence of her peers, the atmosphere changed considerably as teenage giggling and nonsense replaced discussions of intricate problems of contemporary Cambodian society. It was actually refreshing to see her revert to a typical 16-year-old. In my company she tried to maintain composure and restrain her giggling but it didnít entirely work as some of her friends teasing was surely coming at my (and probably hers as well) expense. But that was fine, because no matter what oneís status in life; rich or poor, educated or not, first world or third world, a teenager is still a teenager. And that is how it should be.

I visited Kov in July. Her family had just returned from a trip to southern Vietnam. She is hoping to start studies next year at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, but of more immediate concern, she is hoping to be chosen for the upcoming United States tour that the Royal Ballet is planning. She isn't too optimistic, though, as she had been chosen for the 1999 Europe tour she expects other students will be given the chance this time.

Other than traveling overseas as a member of the Royal Ballet, Kov has done nothing that in itself is particularly newsworthy. But in a country still rebuilding itself, it is people like Kov that represent the best hope for positive change. She may never do a thing to make herself a name in history, but so long as Cambodia gets more young adults like her, the country will indeed rebuild itself, of that I am sure. One day and one person at a time. And in her own way, she'll make far more history than through any fleeting moment of fame.



Chamroeun Yin has a very informative site, Cambodian Classical Dance.

Photographs of the ballet and of dancers at the School of Fine Arts by Dan White.

From Visiting Arts, a story on the restoration of the Khmer cultural heritage following the Khmer Rouge years.

Sophilene Cheam Shapiro, the School of Fine Arts first post-Pol Pot era graduate, remains active in Cambodian Classical Dance. Earlier this year in Phnom Penh she staged an adaptation of Shakespeare "Othello" under the title "Samritechhak". She has a dance company in the USA, Dance Celeste.




All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.