Three teenagers huddle together for a quick brainstorming session in the warehouse dance studio of the Khmer Arts Academy in the heart of Cambodia Town.
One girl is plucking at a ukulele, another is quickly tapping impromptu prose into her phone and a boy is suggesting what movements he could do with the words. Together, they’re creating a dance piece: one that’s part Cambodian, part American.
“‘The ugly I see in myself is the beauty others see in me,’” Victoria Ung, 16, recites from her notes. She pauses.
“It’s not really Western,” she says.
“It’s something different, though,” says her friend, 15-year-old Soriyah Sam.
Chakra Sokhomsan, 16, suggests they try it out. Placing the phone on top of an electrical outlet box affixed to the wall, they start recording as Chakra kneels into position. Soriyah starts plucking a slow tune on her ukulele as Victoria recites the poem they created minutes earlier.
Chakra’s movements are slow and precise, gentle and deliberate. Everything from the grounding of his toes, to his fingers curved in the air, to his regal gaze into the mirror is precise and meaningful.
This is Khmer dancing, except that Khmer (Kuh-my) dancing isn’t usually performed to spoken word—and it certainly isn’t performed with a traditional Hawaiian instrument or choreographed by teenagers.
The three students are part of a new program at the Khmer Arts Academy called Roots and Shoots, where students are given the opportunity to choreograph their own dances to modern music.
“With our group, we definitely want to bridge gaps between Westernized culture and Cambodian heritage,” Chakra says. “I think involving poetry, it definitely adds a lot of meaning to it, with purpose too. In our poem, we talk about self-worth and image and I think combining it with Cambodian dance gives a sense of identity.”
At the academy’s last open house in December, the three teens debuted the program by performing a Khmer dance to a slow version of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” played on a ukulele.
“In classical Cambodian dance, you’re obviously identifying and embodying a character that’s already been created,” Chakra said. “But in Roots and Shoots … it would be someone else’s story, I’d say, or it can be like an idea, like you can embody trauma.”
Most of the traditional dances the students learn were either choreographed centuries ago or in the 1950s, according to Mea Lath, who is the managing director of the academy and helped implement Roots and Shoots at KAA.
“It was relevant to what was going on back then and the culture then and what they’ve kind of rediscovered about the culture in Cambodia as well,” she said.
Though the younger generation is drawing inspiration from modern poetry and music for their dances, the older generation hasn’t seemed to raise much of a fuss over the changes in tradition.
“So here, we’re rediscovering our culture and figuring out what represents us and what makes us Cambodian-Americans: why aren’t we exactly Cambodian and why aren’t we exactly Americans?” she said.
In traditional Cambodian dance, the dancer usually embodies a character and the characters are usually gods—or at least god-like, according to Lath.
“You lessen blinking even,” Lath said. “You never look at anyone in the eyes because you’re supposed to be a god.”
“We kind of prepare them for a meditation. We have them close their eyes and then we have them picture their most beautiful self, whatever that may be. Once they start to open their eyes, this magic just kind of comes out.”
In the Apsara dance, for example, the main dancer embodies the queen of the Apsaras. She wears an ornate and intricate gold crown that is tied to her head. In another dance, the dancers might be a monkey king or a mermaid queen.
The ancient dance, as Chakra put it, “transcends language.” There are more than 4,500 gestures and each gesture has a meaning—ask a Khmer dancer and they’re quick to show the basics: a tree, leaves, a flower with petals, fruit and then the fruit falling and eventually growing another tree. Altogether, the movements represent the cycle of life.
The dance Chakra, Victoria and Soriyah are working on is still in the early stages, with the group fine-tuning it during each Saturday practice.
Chakra, in a future piece, wants to choreograph a dance exploring the effects of trauma on Cambodians who fled to the United States during the Khmer Rouge and the secondary trauma felt by their children.
In the 1970’s, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia committed mass genocide, wiping out more than 1.5 million people, including an estimated 90 percent of the country’s artists and dancers.
With the genocide, traditional art and dance were nearly lost. Now the academy, one of a handful in the US, is trying to hold on to it. Started by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and John Shapiro in 2002, KAA is meant to pass on the dance tradition to the younger generation of Cambodians in America.
Lath started at KAA when she was 12 years old, training as an apprentice dancer under Shapiro before becoming a teacher and later the managing director.
Now the next generation is doing the same: Chakra and Victoria are both students who have recently become assistant teachers in the academy, carefully correcting the younger students and their peers by firmly pushing their shoulders back for a more serpentine back arch or adjusting their foot placement during the nearly hour-long stretching and warm up routine.
The studio used to be packed with 50 or so kids in bright kben pants performing the careful movements together. But after grant funding ran out in 2016, the academy had to start charging parents a small tuition fee each month— $15 per month at first, and then $60 in 2017.
During the rough two years, students started dropping out, Lath said. Although admittedly, many of the kids were likely pushed into the cultural experience by their parents when it was free and they may not have been that much into dancing, she said—not everyone loves to dance.
“I felt so bad having to charge them after 15 years of free lessons, but I knew the importance of why we needed the tuition, it was to keep the place open,” Lath said.
Now with about 15 dedicated students, ranging from about five-years-old to teenagers and all girls except for Chakra, the smaller but mighty dance troupe practices in the airy and open studio. The tuition had one positive effect: the kids who ended up staying in the classes definitely want to be there.
“This place is a community space, a safe place where students can discover who they are as Cambodian-Americans,” Lath said.
And the Roots and Shoots program helps the students figure that out—even if it’s not exactly how traditional Khmer dancing is done with live Cambodian music and hundred-year-old choreographed pieces.
“In Long Beach, there are approximately 50,000 Cambodians, and I’ve only been able to appeal to 20 or 30 kids at a time. I feel that kids are our future, so if our kids are not interested in Cambodian culture, how are we going to keep carrying it on? It’s such a huge task,” she said.
“The motivation is actually fear, the fear of losing the culture. What tends to happen is as generations go on, you lose more and more of that culture and you just become an American that looks Asian, pretty much.”