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History and Background of Classical Cambodian Court Dance

Dance Costumes & Dance Characters

Royal Dance Spectacle

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

Scott's Cambodian musical instrument report

Khmer Classical Dance at the Temple

The Dance Spirit of Cambodia

The Dance Spirit of Cambodia Arts & Culture





Classical Cambodian dance was one of the many art forms that the Khmers regard as well as associated with the royal Khmer court of many centuries ago. It is also one of the most highly expressive forms of art that still survive today. Court dance was not just a source of entertainment for the royal court. However it served many rituals whether public or private that continued right into the 20th century such as at coronations, funerals, honouring visiting head of state or for religious purposes. The dancers were often believed to be the medium between the gods that dwelled all around mankind, god-kings and mortals. Therefore court dance held many significant to the king, the people and the entire nation. The dancers would perform "boung soung" (paying respects to the heavenly deities) to promote and induce rain for plentiful crops better harvest, fertility to the land, peace and prosperity for the whole kingdom.


Court dance was generally assumed to have developed in the 9th century under King Jayavarman II (802-850) having returned from Indonesia. He also established the devaraja (god-king) cult and founded the Khmer empire that was to last for several centuries. During the Angkorean period from the 9th - 15th century A.D. many monuments began to appear and so did Khmer art that included temple deities and apsaras (celestial nymphs) that guarded the temples and entertained the gods. During the classical Angkorean age from 10th century to 14th century. Elegant apsaras began to appear in their thousands on temple gates, bas-reliefs, pillars, pediments etc... The elegant nymphs were found especially carved on the temple of Angkor Wat under the reign of King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) that was to serve as his final resting place, as well as a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu. Angkor Wat also served as the finest example of Khmer art to the Khmer people.


Apsaras from Angkor Wat, photographed by Sok Sothy

 In the 11th century one king gave one of his Brahmans the gift of ," one hundred beautiful magnificently adorned women... fifty orchestras, copper cymbals, drums etc." While in the 13th century the great King Jayavarman VII gave a temple that he had just built , "a thousand dancers and in the rest of the temples that covered the empire a total of one thousand six hundred and twenty-two dancers".



Dancers from the early part of the 20th century performing at Angkor Wat

From the 15th century onwards, the Khmer Empire began to slowly decline, imposing temples were no longer constructed, and the imposing choreographic rituals slowly waned. A fatal blow came from it's neighbouring Siamese kingdom that used to be part of the Angkorean vassal state sacked the Khmer Empire's capital in 1431. Among their booty they took with them were: slaves, artisans, musicians and the entire royal dance troupe to their capital Ayuthaya. In the next four hundred years Cambodia entered the dark ages of it's history. Nothing is known about court dance until the middle of the 19th century under the reign of King Ang Duong (1796-1860) there saw the revival of Khmer arts. King Ang Duong was a patron of the arts, his kingdom flourished with artisans, sculptors, poets, literature, music and a royal dance troupe in his royal court. He set up his own dance troupe comprising of two troupes one female and one male. These two evolved separately into two different art forms that we see today. The male art form was supported by local governors and came to be known as lakhon khol (masked theatre). However the female troupe became the more dominant out of the two and came to be known was robam boran or lakhon kabach boran (royal court dance).

During the reign of a new king a new dance troupe would be arranged by a matron of the royal court. Women were usually of royalty, relatives, concubines and wives. A woman according to her body type would be trained to play a single role. Tall and slender women would play male and female roles such as heroes and princess, while women with strong and large body types would play the roles of giants and villains. Men only had small roles such as clowns and hermits. It was later generation that the role of the monkey was played by men.



The Chan Chaya open air pavilion was where the royal dancers would perform for important guests and visiting head of state. This pavilion is at the front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.


In the early part of the 20the century court dance was declining because, there was insufficient allowances or the dancers just left to go to school or get married. In former times there were about some 500 dancers. By 1904 there were only 100 dancers left and about half of them accompanied King Sisowath to Europe to perform at the Marseilles exhibition in 1906.



Princess Norodom Bopha Devi was a major member of the Royal Ballet. She was just a mere handful of teacher who survived after the war to help rebuild the Royal Cambodian Ballet.

From 1906 right through to the late 1940s many writers marveled at the beauty and serenity of court dance. The writers like Augusta Rodin, Malcom MacDonald and W. Somerset Maugham just to name a few were captivated by gracefulness of the dancers performing ancient repertoires of many centuries ago.

The sculptor Augusta Rodin who saw a rare public performance of the royal dance troupe performing in Marseilles exhibition in 1906 was enchanted by the dancers said, "It is impossible to see human nature carried to such perfection (...) There are so many who claim to have beauty, but who don't give it. But the king of Cambodia give it to us. Even the children are great artists. This is absolutely unimaginable!".

Malcolm MacDonald in his book "Angkor and the Khmers" describes a performance by the Royal Corps de Ballet at Phnom Penh in 1948, "The story gave me me a fascinating glimpse of the link between the past and the present, the unbroken history of the Khmer people and their direct descent of modern Phnom Penh from ancient Angkor".


Queen Sisowath Kossamak Neary Rath who was a  strong patron of the arts like many before her.  

Court dance was revived again and was at it's peak under the reign of Norodom Sihanouk (1941-1950) when his mother former Queen Sisowath Kossamak Neary Rath made court dance an important part of the royal Khmer court. She also brought innovations like introducing boys to play the role of the monkey and shortening the performances to fit Western audiences that find it appropriate instead of performances before then that use to run for a couple of days. Also she made the dance costumes more refined and elaborate which Western audiences find so exotic. All these innovations began as early as the 1940s.

In the 1960s her grand-daughter Princess Norodom Bopha Devi was also part of the court dance troupe. She became the prima ballerina. One of her well known roles was to performing as Apsara Mera in the Apsara dance. By 1962 there were 254 members of the dance troupe (2 male dance teachers, 17 female dance teachers, 6 prime dancers, 25 corps de ballet, 160 pupils, 30 dressers, costumer, jewellery persons and makeup artists, 10 singers, and 4 male clowns) thus showing that this era lakhon kabach boran was again an important aspect of the Khmer king's power.


In the 1970s with the overthrow of the royal monarchy Khmer court dance began to decline and worst was to come during the Khmer Communist Revolution known as the Khmer Rouge era from 1975-79. The Khmer people suffered so much under this four year period that was known as the "Killing Fields".

So many people died under starvation, persecution and execution. Khmer culture also suffered especially court dance and many other art forms. What documents or manuscripts that were recorded were all destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Those dancers who could flee to neigbhouring refugee camps in Thailand kept the tradition alive and those who stayed behind were killed off.


By 1979 there revival of Khmer art began a slow and painstaking task of finding the surviving teachers and what documents that were available to keep the art form alive. The sad irony is that court dance 90 per cent of the dancers had vanished as well as many other art forms were rarely recorded or documented. Everything was passed down orally from teacher to student for many hundreds of years. Once the link had been broken it was hard to recover that link. A year later court dance only had about a handful students that were recruited from orphanages that were taught be a mere handful of teachers.


A scenes from the Reamker (Ramayana) advertised on a poster in 1974.


Less than a decade later court dance was alive again with more than one hundred students learning this ancient traditional art form in Phnom Penh. The loss is still great with about a third of the dance repertoires- the steps- gesture, movements, narratives-survived intact. However there seemed to be a lot of support to see this art form ancient with such exquisite beauty and refinement that is ranked as just one of the world's oldest traditions.