By: Ly Vanna.Apsara Pictures Courtesy of Societe Concessionaire De L'Aeroport. ( July, 2002 Volume 2 No.7 )

Apsara in French, Theib Apsar (from the Sanskrit) or even Achara in Pali, they all refer to the beautiful girl with nice skin: the girl from paradise, the celestial dancer.
Through Brahmanism, we learn of their role during the famous Churning of the Sea of Milk episode. The Apsaras are the women who appeared when 92 Gods (deva) and the 88 Devils (asura) agreed to a tug-of-war to stir Sakmuth Teukdoh (the Sea of Milk) in order to create the elixir of life and thus gain immortality. They used the Naga called Vasuki as a line and Phnom Mandara (Mount Mandara) as a tool for the churning. This is commemorated in the famous bas-relief of the South section in the East gallery at Angkor Wat. The role of the Apsaras was to sing and dance, to encourage the churning. The ancient Apsaras live on in sculptures on the many temple walls in Cambodia and in the lives of the Khmer people.

The sculptures seem to smile and welcome people, showing their beauty and the prosperity of the Angkorian era. The Apsara's trademark: voluptuous curves and innocent gaze can transport the viewer to this bygone era. The gestures of the Apsaras come alive through the carvings on the wall and ensure their legacy is passed on from one generation to another.
We observe that on stage when the curtain opens, the Apsara dancers would stand in the same stance as the Apsara sculptures. Then they dance and at the end of which, the dancers wrap in the same stance as the Apsara sculptures once again. Her Excellency, Menh Kossony, Deputy Director General of Technical, Ministry of Culture and Fine Art explains that: "The Apsara imagery comes from the carvings. This is why they engage in that ‘Apsara stand’ at the start and at the end of the performance to remind us of ancient times. We see them as not real but only carvings about which we dream." The dance is performed either by a single dancer or in a group of three, five, or seven members (even numbers are considered unlucky). The main dancer (star) usually dons a white costume. For a group of seven, there will be one in white, two in red, two in blue and two in green. For a group of five, one in white, two in red, two in blue and for a group of three, one in white, two in red. The duration of the dance is not as strictly governed as would the costume but a performance usually lasts for at least five minutes. The play always describe nature or depicts some scenes from the ancient story. All dancers are girls, who are of the same age and same physical proportions. "In the past, the Apsara dance was an unique form of dancing reserved only for special events and ordinary people were rarely able to watch it, but now everyone can watch the Apsara dancing live on stage or through television," Her Excellency Menh Kossony said.

Historically, in 1959-1960 Princess Kannitha, King Norodom Sihanouk's aunty and Director of Sothearos School, designed and made a paper headpiece of the Apsara for Prince Norodom Socheatvathana, a son of King Norodom Sihanouk. It was for wearing for dances during the holidays at the Sothearos School. The king was very interested in the dance, so he told his mother, queen Kosamaknaryrath - sirivathana, who was in charge of royal dance. Then the queen ordered Mr. Hang Tun Hak, Rector of the Royal University of Fine Art (1959) to make a silver headpiece and other paraphernalia for Princess Bopha Thevy to wear and perform in the movie called, Baksei Than Sourka ( The bird in the paradise). It was filmed at the Angkor Wat, with ballads and notation derived from Enav Bosba (a Muslim story) and Preah Sakmuth & Neag Buth Sokmaly (a Khmer story). Ms. Dork Pay and Ms. Chharvry, the dance instructors created the distinctive Apsara dance gestures. Since then the Apsara dance continues to appear in the kingdom in the new creation, a very beautiful and famous one at that.
Every Khmer dance movement and gesture echoes in some way--nature through their emotion to the scenery. For instance, the gesture of the dancers’ hands indicates planting, growing, flowering, ripening, falling and growing again. Totally, there are 4,500 gestures in the Khmer dance, from the hands, legs, body to the head. This stands as a reminder of the highly subtle and stylized art form that has been developed within Cambodia. As a result of the Khmer love for nature, the creation of these kinds of arts satisfies their emotions. Essentially provides a way of expressing their interconnectedness with their environment.

Apsara dance is known as the ‘Spirit of Khmer’ dance, which was created in the late 1950s and earned fame through its beauty, meaning and style. "So Apsara dancing has to be accorded that special place and performed only on appropriate occasion." Said H.E Pich Keo, Deputy Director General of Technical, Ministry of Culture and Fine Art. It is believed that the Apsara is a perfect and beautiful girl. The perfect girl always smiles without showing the teeth. Despite the belief, there are yet some Apsara sculptures that show the Apsara exposing her teeth. The concept of the perfect women still stands as the ideal. "Smiling whilst showing or hiding the teeth identifies a girl's character during the Ankorean era. A smile showing the teeth exposes the simple woman. Hiding the teeth identifies the perfect woman," said Mr. Pok Chhun Nath, an instructor at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art, who teaches sculpture. There is yet another concept surrounding the different characteristics of the Apsara sculptures. "The characters are dependent on the mood of the sculptors. If they are happy they sculpt the open smiling face and if their feeling is normal, they sculpt the little smile." said H.E Hang Soth, a professor and Director General of the General Department of Technical Culture, Ministry of Culture and Fine Art.
It is not merely about looks. There is strenuous training and many complicated gestures and routines to be memorized. The effortless slow pace of the meticulous hand movements is not something to be learnt quickly. Ms. Vong Phemean, traditional dance trainer at the Apsara Arts Association emphasizes this aspect: "The training takes five year and involves rigorous practice. A whole year is merely to improve how supple the dancer is, all the movements must be controlled."
In total the training lasts five years: one for the improvement on the elasticity of the dancer. Another year is training on the dancing style with huge emphasis on hand movements. The remaining three years involve intense practice. "Perfection is difficult but after five years of training and practice we are very much nearer" said Vong Phemean. Everything about the Apsara is quintessentially Khmer: the smile, the costume and the stylized ritual. The notion of representing the celestial dancers means flawless looks combined with arduous training. Everything must be synchronized from the movements of the dance to the colour of each of the dancers skin. An enduring symbol that still enchants people through the centuries and inspires some to attempt to replicate their perfection. The celestial dancers represent an undeniable window into the past- proving to be much, much more than a simple dance routine. Their skill and beauty outshines their more static stone counterparts - who they themselves strive to imitate.