Nuts About Dancing
By: May Titthara..Photos by: Courtesy of Ministry of Culture and Ms. Toan Sophie ( December, 2002 Volume 2 No.12 )

The coconut dance is a routine that Cambodian people traditionally perform after working hard in the fields and on occasions such as Khmer new-year and sometimes at weddings. The dance means a lot to Cambodian people, especially singles in the countryside, who tend to value traditions like these more highly than city-dwellers nowadays. The dance symbolises youth and fertility, and also represents how much people value the life-giving coconut fruit and its by-products, which are a staple crop across the nation. Cambodian villagers like to plant coconut palms around their houses, and harvest products like the roots, trunks, leaves, shells, fruit and nectar from the trees. The shell of the coconut is used in rural areas to make useful household items such as scoops, measures, combs, bowls and musical instruments. The coconut shells make a sweet sound when knocked together and such 'music' encourages villagers to dance and relax especially after a hard day working on the paddy field. It has since developed into a favorite pastime for unmarried people in the villages, who often assume different forms, such as the praying mantis, to tease and arouse interest in each other.

The coconut dance originated in Romeas Heak district in Svay Rieng province, and is thought to have been composed some time around 1960. The dance tells of the tradition of love between adult men and young girls in the countryside. The coconut shells represent a man and a woman, traditionally symbolized by water and earth in Khmer art and legend. People today still perform the coconut dance to a traditional Khmer music almost similar to that played during wedding ceremonies, just as their ancestors did in the past. There is a particular kind of music that is reserved for weddings - a well-loved Khmer tradition, which to Cambodian people symbolizes the start of a new, married life. The music of the coconut dance is almost as pleasant and cheerful. Nou Sokha, chief of the committee of traditional Khmer music at the Royal University of Culture and Fine Arts, explained the complexities of ceremonial wedding music. "There are about 133 songs people play during wedding ceremonies. It is very important for starting a new family life for Khmer adults and girls and it is a strong souvenir between a husband and a wife," he said. The instruments that are used to perform the music are: The stringed 'Tror' (the Khmer violin), the 'Kse Deav' (a typical Khmer string instrument with a nut on one end), the Chapei Dorng Veng' (a guitar-like instrument), the 'Pei Or' (a type of reed instrument), the 'Skor Dei' (a drum), and the 'Chhing' (a pair of tiny cymbals).

Men and women wear different costumes to perform the coconut dance. Female dancers wear a green silk 'Changkbin' (looks like a layered sarong folded between the legs to form pants) and a shirt that but tons up at the back. Men traditionally wear a dark red 'Changkbin' and a yellow shirt. Ngoun Sam Art, director of traditional dance at Royal University of Culture and Fine Arts, said, "The university recompiled documents related to the coconut dance in 1968, for the young generation to learn." He added that, "In the past, people in countryside staged this kind of dance during national ceremonies and at weddings, the same type of music is played to accompany the groom to the bride’s house." Seng Kalyvan, a student of coconut dance at the university, warned that although the coconut dance can be performed by anyone, it takes a professional to get it just right. "We only allow dancers who have trained at the school for at least two years to perform the coconut dance on stage," he said.
Seng Kalyvan is an old hand - while some may be worried about making mistakes, for him, performing the complex routine on stage is easy: "I don't find the dance too hard to perform because I have studied already and so I am not afraid of performing," Seng Kalyan said. Although it may have begun as a dance to tease and for relaxation, the coconut dance has evolved to become a popular item performed at almost any big restaurant around the nation. Ngoun Sam Art added that, "One of the reasons Khmer people performed the coconut dance was because they wanted to show the importance of coconuts that can be decorated for international and local visitors to know about Khmer property. Perhaps it is just the perpetuation of a tradition and with the abundance of the fruit, we can understand why such a dance came about, and why it has remained so popular."