By CSULB Senior Seminar Reporter Vivian Gatica; Photo courtesy of Chad Sammeth
Emily Ngov’s grandmother had always liked watching the little girls perform Cambodian dances and wanted her granddaughter to do the same. In just second grade, Ngov began learning about her Khmer culture through dance.
Time passed, Ngov got busy with school, and eventually stopped dancing. But now, after years of sitting on the sidelines, Ngov is reconnecting with her Cambodian roots at the Khmer Arts Academy in Long Beach.
“I wanted to get back in the groove with Khmer Arts,” Ngov, now a 15-year-old high school sophomore, said. “It feels so good to be a part of something that is so involved with culture and Cambodia itself.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, almost 20,000 people of Cambodian decent reside in Long Beach, making it one of the cities with the largest population of Cambodians outside Cambodia.
This is due, in part, to the migration of Cambodians to the U.S. in the late 1970s during the communist rule of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. This was a period of severe political instability for Cambodia, in which many were considered threats to government rule and were executed—especially intellectuals like artists, musicians and dancers.
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and her husband John Shapiro founded the Khmer Arts Academy in 2002, and established their Long Beach studio in 2005 to teach Cambodian classical dance to the community.
“Cambodians who came to the U.S.—the vast majority of them—came as refugees. Many were poorly educated and had very few language and marketable skills, so the community struggled to survive and thrive in its adopted home,” John Shapiro said. “One of the things that the Cambodian culture has always had that’s been a strength is its dance; it is something Cambodians do and they do very well.”
Serey Tep, managing director of Khmer Arts Academy, said that Cambodian Classical dance originates from the Angkor era in the 10th century.
“The dance is an intricate, stylized, nature-based form that began as a Hindu temple ritual more than 1,000 years ago; the functions of the dance acted as a medium that connects earth to heaven,” Tep said.
Since dancers engaging in this art form were targets of the Khmer Rouge regime, Tep said that its foundation was destroyed.
“The [civil] war left our lively country in a gaping whole of cultural heritage and [left] the community with a huge and overwhelming challenge,” Tep said. “With the guidance of Khmer Arts Academy, we educate young Cambodians by expanding our role arts and culture play for our dancers to be connected to their culture…so that Cambodian young generations are prepared to preserve their culture and prevent the re-occurrence of such kinds of damage.”
Dancers Shorenay Kong, 18, and Sabrina Sun, 16, feel more connected to their culture by dancing.
Kong learned of Khmer Arts Academy after seeing pictures of her friend dancing at El Dorado Park during the Cambodian New Year’s celebration three years ago, and it immediately caught her attention.
“I was very intrigued and captivated by it,” Kong said. “I didn’t know they taught Cambodian classical dance in Long Beach.”
She has been dancing ever since, and through it she has learned about her Cambodian roots and heritage.
“It’s helped me a lot and opened my eyes to my own culture; about what it means to be part of the Cambodian culture and to have that as your background and history,” Kong said.
Kong also expressed her excitement at the how available the dance is to everyone.
“Even though I am Cambodian, there are other people who are not and they can still learn to dance and still learn the whole discipline, traditions and Cambodian ideals,” she said.
Sun came to the Khmer Arts Academy with her cousin, but was not too fond of the dancing at the beginning.
“At first, I did not grow any interest in it, but as I practiced and practiced I grew to love it,” Sun said. “I feel awesome every time I perform Khmer dance because it keeps the culture alive and it makes me proud of who I am.”
She says the Khmer Arts Academy does a good job preserving Cambodian heritage among the youth.
“I learned that your culture is precious and that taking care of it can benefit later on in the future,” Sun said. “Khmer Arts Academy is a great place to embrace Khmer culture and where young Cambodians, like myself, can be part of something that can benefit the Long Beach community.”
Shapiro said that much of the second and third generations of Cambodian-Americans are distant from their homeland.
“[Dancing] is a pathway for them to understand where their family has come from—the aesthetics, the mythology, and the rituals that are associated with being Cambodian,” he said.
To help do this, Shapiro said they sometime bring their professional dance troupe from Cambodia to dance with the community program in Long Beach. The last time this happened was in 2012 at the Long Beach Museum of Art.
“We have this connection between the homeland Cambodia and the aspheric community in Long Beach,” Shapiro said. “It’s not only an opportunity for them to perform together, but also for them to get to know each other and just hang out and understand that there is this connection between their motherland and the Cambodian-American students—that they have this common vocabulary.”
Ngov feels that preserving her culture through Cambodian classical dance is her duty.
“It’s not just a temporary thing; it’s still growing,” Ngov said. “We’re just a small part—but an important part—of reviving the art form of Khmer dancing.”