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Dance Costumes and Dance Characters

History and background of Court Dance

Royal Dance Spectacles

Classical Court Dance Music

Masked Theatre (Lakhon Khol)

Shadow Theatre (Nang Sbek)

Royal Palace of Phnom Penh



Ken Kunthea's Dance Homepage

Youthful Optimism

Chamrouen Yin's Classical Cambodian Dance Page

Danse Celeste

Apsara Dance

Poetry In Motion

Classical Cambodian Dance

A Determined Survivor Revives Khmer Classical Dance

Classical Cambodian Court Dance

Sovannaphum Assoication

Sam Ang Sam's Khmer Music page


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During the 15th century A.D. when the Khmer Empire was declining . The Khmer capital Angkor suffered countless attacks by the neigbhouring Siamese army. In 1431 when Angkor was finally sacked, the Siamese army took among their booty artisans, courtiers, scholars, religious texts and sacred objects, slaves as well as the entire royal dance troupe back to their capital Ayuthaya where it was to serve as part of the royal Siamese court. Therefore when the dancers returned back to the land of origin, there was a curious cross-cultural ex-change of ideas, language and many art forms because, the two neighbouring countries evolved from one another back and forth. Thus rendering Thai and Cambodian art could not be distinguished including dance. Therefore Thai dance resembles Cambodian dance and vice versa.

Before a performance the dancers would be stitched into their very elaborate costumes. Sometimes it could take up to 3 hours or more putting on the elaborate costumes not to mention all the other accessories that make the spectacle so grand, in their glittering splendour that the audience find so exotic.

Usually it would take one or two months to prepare a single costume. Everything is done by hand and that includes painstakingly sewing the minute beads and sequins onto velvet, satin and silk into very elaborate, intricate and complicated motifs. The dancers costumes are also made in separate pieces. Therefore before a performance it would be assembled to form a garment. It had also been tradition that the dancers be sewn into their costumes. It is said that it will bring out the true contours of the human body. Zips and buttons are never used because, the dance costumes are tailored not for just one performer but for many others.

Back in the old days when the Royal Cambodian Ballet was at it's peak. Many of the costumes that were worn by the dancers would have been embroidered with gold threads, and studded with semi-precious jewels depending on who the patron was. Sometimes the costume can weigh about 1.5 kilos with all those accessories that are included in the dance costumes that give it that sense of royalty and splendour of the Khmer court in former times.


A Royal Princess dressed in court regalia identical to court dance costumes


Leading male dance characters that include kings, Princes etc...which are played by female dancers would wear rich and flamboyant costumes comprising of a tailored long sleeved jacket and collar that would have intricately embroidery on them. In former times the  embroidered jackets would have been sewn with genuine gold and silver threads forming those flowing and elaborate designs that make it so grand. On the dancer or dancers shoulders they would have a pair of horns. One on the left and one of the right.

The male dancers would wear breeches and on top of that they would wear the gold or silver lamé sampot kaben which is a traditional garment that gathered at the front, then twisted to form pleats and goes between the legs and is tucked at the back secured with a be-jewelled belt. The dancers would also wear three other accessories including one rectangular loin-cloth at the front and two others on the side that look like fish tails.


Typical leading male costume. Preah-Ream (Prince Rama) from the Reamker. 


On their fingers, they would wear rings, and on their arms they would wear numerous sets and pairs of bracelets, bangles and a garland of flowers in the form of a bracelets, and also armlets. Around both their ankles they would wear a pair of anklets. The lead and minor dancers would have several body chains that is worn like a sash. Criss-crossing the front is the kse-sangvar of chains of rank which forms an 'X' as they cross over one another, on top of the kse-sangvar a diamond shaped pendant is worn. To make the statorial splendour complete. The lead dancer would wear a mokot (crown or tiara). The mokot would be secured at the back and held in place with chords and be pinned to the back of the hair which is tied in a bun that the performer had knotted. Therefore male characters dancers look as though they are truly male dancers but however they are female dancers because, their hair had been tied up. On the right side of the mokot hangs a garland of flowers and on the left is a single flower that is worn by all male dance roles.

Other dance accessories such as weapons includes: swords, bows and arrows and qivers.

Colour also determines the role of the character. Preah Ream (Prince Rama) would wear green because, he was the incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu while  Preah Leak (Prince Laksmana) is brown or yellow.


For female dancer that include queens, princess etc...their dance costume is much different from that the male dancer. Their costume would normally comprise of traditional cape called sbai or rabai kanorng which is drapped over the left shoulder leaving the right shoulder bare. Rarely was the cape worn over the right shoulder. There difference between classical Thai female dance costumes was that, the cape in the Thai version covers both shoulders instead of just one shoulder like the Khmer's. 

The sbai or rabai kanorng would have been sumptously fashioned in the old days in threads of genuine gold or silver. The cape in the old days would have hanged down the hem of the sampot, however these days they hang half way down about up to the thighs. Underneath the cape the dancer or dancers would wear a bodice that fits the cape leaving one of the shoulders bare. Around the dancers neck the  would wear a collar similar to that of a male dancer. The female dancers would sampots (skirts) instead of sampot kabens. Sampot sara-bhap (lamé) as they are called are made from silk inter-woven with gold or silver threads forming elaborate and intricate designs that shimmer as the dancers move. This is held in place with a be-jewelled belt.

There are a multitude of jewellery that are also worn by the female dancers, they include, earrings, several pairs of bangles, and a garland of flowers in the form of a bracelet, bracelets, anklets and an armlet that is worn on the right. Several body chains cross over the body like a sash. A circular or diamond shaped pendant is worn around the neck.

There are several different types of mokot worn by female dancers. The typical mokot that are worn are much similar to that of the male dance characters. Some crowns are just like tiaras where at the back of the mokots hair is let loose cascading down their backsides. While other mokots have a few accessories such as ear pieces that would sit above the ear and help hold the mokot in place while a comb at the back is just an added accessory. Flowers are also worn on the mokot in the same style, however the hanging garlands of flowers are worn on the left and the bouquet is worn on the right.

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Typical female dance costume, photographed by Giovanni Diffidenti. Discalimer  



For masked dancers from lakhon khol that perform tales exclusively from the Reamker (Ramayana), the roles of beasts, giants and monkey warriors are distinguished by male dancers wearing full-head masks, although the roles of the giants may be played by female dancers. Vivid and exaggerated in expression, these masks adhere, like the dance itself to convention and their significance and impact depend on colour symbolism and stylised design. 

Masked dance character Ream Eyso from Roeung Moni Mekhala (Moni Mekhala Dance drama). Just one of the typical giants costumes and characters. 

The masks worn by the dancers are made from papier mâché with very elaborate attires depending on the role of the character. For instance Krong Reap's (Ravana) mask would have a tire of human heads as a crown, while Ream Eyso the Storm Spirit would have a crown topped off in the form of a naga's (dragon) head or garuda's tail.

The masks and costumes of a giant is much different from the mask of monkey warriors or beasts because, the mask of the giant would have canines and fangs that would protrude upwards or downwards depending on the character. Their long sleeve jackets are like male dance characters with shoulder horns on both shoulders and the same accessories but with ranking characters they would wear a busband which is worn around the torso. Traditionally their weapons would include maces, laces, battle-axes and sometimes bows and arrows. For Phi-Phek Asura who is Preah Ream's astrologer, he carries around with him a slate board to do his predictions about on coming events and a mace. To identify his character as a giant, magician and astrologer.



To portray a mythical being such as mermaids (machha), garudas (kroth), or kinnaries (Khenoray) which is a half-women half-bird. The dancer would wear an artificial tail that would be propped and attached to the backside of the dancer or dancers, secured at the front around the waist by cords and held in place by a be-jewelled belt with other dance accessories. The tails of kinnaries and kroth both resemble the tails of the hamsa (sacred goose) or the heads of nagas (dragons)

Sovann-machha (golden-mermaid) is just one of the popular characters as well as dance form most often performed dance. The typical Sovann-machha costume would usually comprise of the dancer wearing a golden long sleeve bodice, a tiara,   armlets, an artificial tail, sampot (traditional skirt) and other dance accessories for a lead dancer. While for minor characters they tend to wear the same costumes but with a different colour and the tiaras aren't as elaborate nor are the accessories. The Sovann-machha episode was an extract from the long epic the Reamker (Khmer version of the Indian Ramayana) where Hanuman the white monkey  general of Preah Ream goes and courts her with his cheeky, and playful gestures.

Sovann-machha (golden mermaid), photographed by Pich Tum Kravel  


The traditional monkey costumes would usually comprise of a mask and their costumes without the shoulder horns. However for the role of Hanuman the white monkey and Preah Ream's general he would wear a white costume with all the splendours of leading characters.

The masks of the monkeys are the same colour as their dance costumes and is determined by that which traditional ascribes to the officer commanding monkeys: Hanuman, white; Nippaphat, black; Surgreep, red; Peelee, green.


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Hanuman (white monkey) costume

In one scene from the Reamker that had always been a popular theme is when Hanuman courts Sovann-machha (the golden mermaid). He playfully jests and courts her which the audience finds quite humorous as monkeys are known for their cheekiness as well as their intelligence.

Usually the role of Hanuman and other monkeys involve a lot of acrobatics such as handstands, jumps, standing on one another and  cart wheels just to mention a few. Overall Hanuman is just one of the popular characters from ancient epics.


Copyright © by Kean Chhay Chang 22/09/2001