Unmatched in beauty and elegance, Cambodian Apsara dancers are recognized for their exquisite costumes and mesmerizing hand movements. Though this unique dance style was once reserved only for the royal family and their honoured guests to admire, in recent decades it has become so world-renowned and symbolic of Khmer culture that the Royal Ballet of Cambodia was designated by UNESCO as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ in 2003.
Apsara in History
Meaning ‘water nymph’ or ‘celestial spirit’, the Apsara is deeply rooted in ancient Indian mythology. Legend has it that these beautiful, divine beings would descend from the heavens to entertain gods and kings with their captivating dance and charm. Apsaras are predominant in South and Southeast Asian history, as can be evidenced from ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts and artworks (particularly Angkor Wat).
Contrary to the mythological faeries from the distant past, the Apsara dance we know of today is a fairly recent phenomenon. During a visit to a local primary school in the 1940s, Queen Sisowath Kossamik was so inspired by a performance by the children – who mimicked the Apsaras’ movements depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat – that reviving this ancient dance became a personal passion of hers. She would select her granddaughter to pursue a professional dance career at the young age of 5, and after several years of practice, the young princess held the honour of being the modern era’s first Apsara dancer.
The Dancer and Her Movements
Learning the Apsara dance is not for the faint of heart. The rigorous training period typically begins before the age of 10 and lasts for up to 15 years. Paramount to this art form is developing strength in the legs to perform complex body movements as well as enough flexibility in the hands to bend their wrists and fingers in every direction with ease, almost as if these extremities lacked bone joints.
Like the ethereal spirits they represent, Apsara dancers move ever so slowly yet gracefully, resembling heavenly goddesses floating amongst the clouds. And though often likened to ‘Cambodian Ballet’, Apsara is much more than just a choreographed dance – each of the 1,500 sophisticated hand and finger gestures tell an elaborate history of the country as well as express the soul of the Cambodian people.
In addition to the Apsara’s hypnotic movements are their gorgeous and elaborate costumes, fashioned after the bas-relief carvings of Angor Wat. The most notable features are the bejeweled golden headdress, flowing silk skirt, flowers, and precious matching accessories (collar, armlets, bracelets, anklets, earrings).
Where to see the Apsara Dance
Because the Apsara dance is unique to Khmer culture and not seen outside of Cambodia, no trip to the country is complete without witnessing this spellbinding traditional art with your very own eyes.
In Phnom Penh, Cambodian Livings Arts holds nightly performances at the National Museum, while several restaurants and theatres in Siem Reap also feature Apsara dances as part of their evening show (in a post-COVID world, it may be best to search for updated locations).
And finally, passengers on Heritage Line’s fascinating 4- and 7-night Lower Mekong River cruises (Siem Reap to Phnom Penh/Saigon or vice versa) can catch a front row glimpse of Apsara dancers during an open air gala held aboard their luxury ship in Phnom Penh.