Khmer Arts Academy shares Cambodian culture with the public in open house

The Khmer Arts Academy opened its doors on Saturday to let the public see parts of Cambodian culture you don’t always get a chance to see.

Students and teachers demonstrated almost every part of classical Cambodian dancing, starting with showing the painstaking process of putting on the heavy Mokot Apsara, or Apsara crown, by tying it on to the head.

Cambodian dancing has survived centuries, even through the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime, which killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians and targeted the country’s artists and professionals, among many others.

The dancing is gestural, said Mea Lath, managing director of the academy, and each gesture tells part of the story. There are over 4,500 gestures in Cambodian classical dance.

Part of one performance, the Apsara dance, the dancer says, “Today I am happy to see all the flowers that are growing in the garden,” to start with, through gestures with her hands, according to Lath.

This was also a year of firsts for the academy: this year they started a new music program to teach students how to play traditional music to go with the dance. Eventually, the academy hopes to have their dancers and musicians perform together as it is traditionally intended, rather than using recordings.

It was also particularly special for the academy because of a performance by their students from the “Roots and Shoots” program, which is intended to make classical dancing more relevant to today’s society.

Khmer Arts Academy Roots and Shoots students perform a custom choreographed dance to Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” at the academy’s open house December 22, 2018. Photo by Steven Smith.

“This is something that’s innovative today that we Cambodian-Americans are contemporizing in terms of communicating better with our audience about what we represent,” said Khannia Ok, associate artistic director.

The program allows students to choreograph their own dances to more modern music and explore their own experiences through art, Ok said. Students in the open house performed a dance to Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” with live singers and a ukulele.

“It’s not strictly tradition, it’s more like hey, we’re existing here in America and this is how we’re flourishing and these are our stories,” Ok said.

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Valerie Osier is a breaking news and crime reporter for the Long Beach Post. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from Cal State University, Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband, Steven, and her cat/child, Jones.