PHNOM PENH – Wrists bent and fingers curled, the immaculately dressed dancers perform a series of gestures that, according to ancient custom, carry the wishes of the Khmer kings to the heavens.
Sporting golden head-dresses, the dancers slowly stretch back their wrists and — standing on one leg — perform a set of moves with their hands representing offerings of leaves, flowers and fruit to the gods.
Apsara dance, a classical style of the Angkorian era, nearly vanished in the 1970s under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, which exterminated much of the country’s heritage along with up to 2 million people. But the dance is making a comeback after its unique moves were painstakingly recorded by experts who studied sculptures and wall carvings from Angkor Wat’s roughly 1,000-year-old temples.
Now the once-threatened art form is a common sight at public ceremonies and in hotel lobbies in Cambodia’s hottest tourist spots, such as Siem Reap, with the dance celebrated once more as part of the kingdom’s unique culture. It is also on the United Nations Intangible Heritage list, giving it global recognition.
The dancers are picked when they are as young as 7 for their aptitude and beauty as well as the flexibility and elegance of their hands.
A fine arts school in Phnom Penh is training a new generation of dancers, and while the exact number is unknown, officials and teachers believe there are now hundreds of young Apsara performers driving its revival.