One day I sat chatting with the children at the orphanage I volunteered at last year in Cambodia and I stuttered into a shocked silence as they casually stretched their fingers backwards—their fingers dipping so far back over the top of their hands with pressure that the tips could actually touch their arms.
I had been at the orphanage for several days by that point, but as I acclimated to the surroundings and developed a pace and routine I hadn’t (apparently) paid attention to the casual stretches that made up a strong part of nearly every child’s life if they had decided to study traditional Khmer dancing.
Just as I used to practice my Irish dance steps under the chairs during lectures in class, these kids took any opportunity to stretch their fingers and further a process that takes years—the methodical warping of their hands that will enable them to skillfully execute the intricate hand movements and gestures inherent to Khmer Apsara dancing—Cambodia’s primary cultural dance. This dancing is on display as tourist-centric shows at the pubs in Siem Reap, but beyond that, these dance gestures and hand movements are also a very prominent part of Cambodia’s heritage—one that is gorgeous to watch and actually quite unique from some of the related dance styles in Thailand.
What is Khmer Apsara Dancing?
Khmer Apsara dancing is classical Cambodian ballet form deeply rooted in tradition and Cambodian culture. It is a prominent part of the most important periods in the history of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and remains important to the Cambodian people today, despite the Khmer Rouge’s efforts to stamp it out in the 70s.
Apsara dancing dates back to the 7th century, evidenced by carvings at the ancient Sambor Prei Kuk temples. During the time Angkor Wat was in its full glory in the 12th century, the court of King Jayavarman VII had over 3,000 Apsara dancers to entertain and delight. So revered is Apsara dancing that you can see the delicate hand gestures and dancing Apsaras figures etched into many reliefs throughout the most interesting temples in the Angkor Wat complex.
Apsaras are stunningly beautiful celestial dancing spirits that travel from heaven to Earth, bestowing their enchanting gifts on kings and gods alike. The hallmarks of modern dance shows include: elaborate silk outfits, magnificent headdresses, and intricate gold jewelry. The costumes are brightly colored and elegant, and dancers will change costumes many times during a show to better tell the detailed stories.
UNESCO has named Khmer Apsara dancing a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” and it truly is a unique type of dance unlike anything else in the world. Apsara dance contains elements of Hindu and Buddhist mythologies, but it’s completely unique.
Meaning of Cambodian Dance Hand Gestures
The Apsara were captivating and their spirits were said to hypnotize mortals with slow-paced, mesmerizing dance moves. More than 1,500 hand gestures exist, and Cambodian Apsara dancers learn the intricate movements, and the distinct meaning of each precise hand and figure placement.
Each unique hand gestures represents a word or element important to the Cambodian people, and elements of mythology and nature.
- When you layer hand gestures you can make more complex thoughts and ideas. For example a simple one-handed gesture means flower, when combined with the other hand in precisely the right position it means picking a flower.
- Then you can add position on the body to augment a hand gesture and make another meaning entirely—the same hand gesture placed near the mouth versus another could mean shyness, laughter, or swim.
- To add even more beautiful complexity, some of the hand gestures are meant to appear in a specific order, telling a precise story used in various traditional dances. Other common ideas expressed in Apsara dances include fruit, tendril, love, sadness, and many more.
These movements and gestures are so complex, and the movements in need of such flexibility, that the best dancers must begin training as children. Hence why the young dancers—both boys and girls—spent hours each week contorting their bodies and stretching their limbs into impossible positions.
Thanks to a handful of surviving dancers, Cambodian Apsara dancing—and the vast number of intricate hand gestures required—has seen a resurgence over the past 20 years. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh offer the best chances to witness this beautiful dance form. Consider in Angkor Village Apsara Theatre Siem Reap (where I took many of the photos above), or Cambodian Living Arts in Phnom Penh. I also highly recommend attending a Phare circus show. These shows are an incredible combination of dance, history, circus skills, and artistry.
So I dare you, try it out and see how far you can get your fingers to bend on their own and then using your other hand!?!
How’d ya do?