Apsara is the most important classical dance in the Kingdom of Cambodia. It originated in Cambodia and dates back centuries. Apsara is anchored in ancient Khmer culture.
Apsaras are beautiful female spirits that rule the clouds and waters. They uniquely perform the enchanting Apsara dance. Buddhist and Hindu mythology alike believe these heavenly nymph-like creatures descend from the heavens to visit the earth. Apsaras are messengers of peace between kings and gods.
What Are Apsaras?
Not only are Apsaras heavenly messengers, but they are also the protectors of gods and kings. They seduce anyone who threatens the peace of their rulers by memorising the enemy and captivate them through dance. No mortal can resist the celestial charms of the Apsara and her dance. Their powers are used to prevent threats to the harmony in heaven or on earth. After peace is restored by Apsaras they turn back into stone.
The belief in Apasaras stems directly from Khmer culture. King Jayavarman VII (born in 1120) had over 3,000 Apsara dancers in his court. For centuries Apsara dance performances were to entertain only gods and kings.
The dance dates back to the 7th century; the evidence is found in the carvings at the Sambor Prei Kuk temples, in Cambodia’s Kompong Thom province. Significantly being carved into the stone, Apsara dancers became immortalised through these temple carvings.
Today their images are seen carved into stone at several Angkor temples in Cambodia. Apsaras feature in a 49 meter-long bas-relief carved into the stone at Angkor Wat.
Apsaras are recognised by their glamorous costumes and stunning golden headdresses, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and anklets.
In ancient times the Apsaras only performed for gods or kings. Although, nowadays they perform for all Cambodians as well as for tourists.
What Is Apsara Dancing?
Apsara is the name of the dance which is exclusively performed by Apsaras. These heavenly nymphs hypnotise mortals with their devastating beauty and slow-paced seductive dance.
The delicate hand gestures are the most eye-catching element of the dance. Each specific movement of the fingers has its own distinct meaning, such as worshipping nature by mimicking a flower in bloom.
The most common technique is the jeeb, accomplished by pressing the thumb and forefinger together and fanning the remaining fingers out. This holds many meanings, often illustrating love, laughter, shyness or sorrow.
Apsara continues to be a centrepiece of Cambodian cultural heritage. Considered the most important classical Cambodian dance.
In 2008 UNESCO placed the Apsara dance on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Renowned for its graceful hand gestures and stunning costumes, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, also known as Khmer Classical Dance, has been closely associated with the Khmer court for over one thousand years. Performances would traditionally accompany royal ceremonies and observances such as coronations, marriages, funerals or Khmer holidays. This art form, which narrowly escaped annihilation in the 1970s, is cherished by many Cambodians.
Infused with a sacred and symbolic role, the dance embodies the traditional values of refinement, respect and spirituality. Its repertory perpetuates the legends associated with the origins of the Khmer people. Consequently, Cambodians have long esteemed this tradition as the emblem of Khmer culture.
The Royal Cambodian Ballet and the Modern-Day Apsara
In the 1940s Princess Sisowath Kossamak and the Royal Cambodian Ballet revitalized this ancient dance. Princess Sisowath Kossamak even trained her granddaughter, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, in the art of Apsara dancing.
The Princess became the prima ballerina at the age of 18 in Royal Cambodian Ballet and toured internationally. During the years of the Khmer Rouge, many dancers lost their lives. Although fortunately, King Norodom Sihanouk and Princess Norodom Buppha Devi left Cambodia or otherwise they would have suffered the same fate.
In 1991 King Norodom Sihanouk and Princess Norodom Buppha Devi returned to Cambodia. As soon as she returned Princess Norodom Buppha Devi immediately began to reform the Royal Cambodian Ballet and the Princess still teaches dance to this day.
Flexibility, grace and stamina are needed to become an Apsara dancer, girls in Cambodia start training from a young age for this reason. Every dancer must acquire such acute strength and suppleness in their hands and feet required to perform these painfully slow yet enchanting moves.
Cambodian Living Arts
Experience an unforgettable evening of Cambodian dance and culture.
Cambodian Living Arts put on daily evening shows at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. This takes in a range of traditional arts, including Cambodian ballet.
Traditional Dance Show
From 7pm to 8pm (doors open at 6:30pm)
CLA Theater, National Museum of Cambodia
Corner of St.13 and St.178, Phnom Penh
Dinner & Dance Show
Experience the best of Cambodia through art and cuisine!
A1-minute walk from the National Museum of Cambodia!