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Khmer Apsara Dance: A Symbolic Representation of Cambodian Heritage

Included on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2003, the Cambodian Apsara dance has become one of the country's most popular cultural attractions, appealing to visitors from all over the world. With its graceful movements, exquisite hand gestures, and vibrant costumes, this dance performance is a form of traditional Khmer dance serving as a living heritage and representing Cambodia’s traditions and identity.



Apsara Dance Origins and History

The term “Apsara” is derived from the Sanskrit word “apsaras,” which means “celestial nymph.” In Cambodia, it is widely known as "Robam Tep Apsara," which means "the dance of the celestial nymphs."

The Apsara dance originated in Hindu mythology and was associated with the Khmer Empire, one of Southeast Asia's most powerful civilizations. According to Hindu mythology, Apsaras were celestial nymphs who performed for the gods in heaven. In Cambodian belief, it is said to be rooted in the Angkor era, which lasted from the 9th to the 15th century and marked the rise of the Khmer Empire. During this period, the Apsara dance became an essential component of court rites and celebrations that the Khmer Empire used to demonstrate its authority and wealth. The dance was performed at key state occasions and religious events, such as marriages, funerals, and coronations.



Over time, the Apsara dance grew to represent Khmer culture and identity. It was passed down through generations, with each new dancer bringing their own distinct style and interpretation. Other Southeast Asian cultures, such as those of India and China, inspired the dance style as well.


Apsara Dance Costumes and Movements

The Apsara dance is distinguished by its elaborate and beautiful movements, which represent heavenly nymphs. Dancers frequently use delicate hand gestures and flowing footwork to depict the dance's ethereal beauty. The performance is slow and graceful, with each gesture and movement meticulously choreographed to deliver a certain meaning.



The traditional costumes of Apsara dancers are an important aspect of the performance. The dancers are clothed in long, flowing silk dresses embellished with gold ornaments and headdresses. The dresses are usually made of gorgeously embroidered silk and are meant to resemble the celestial robes of the Apsaras. Headdresses are typically adorned with ornate jewels and feathers, enhancing the grace and elegance of the overall performance.



Apsara Dance Symbolic Meaning

In Cambodian culture, the Apsara dance symbolizes spirituality, femininity, and the bond between humanity and the Divine. It is a way to connect with heaven and evoke the essence of the celestial spirits. The dance is also seen as a type of spiritual exercise and meditation. The dancers employ body language and hand gestures to express a feeling of fluidity, balance, and calm. Their motions are designed to instill a sense of harmony and tranquility, allowing them to connect with a higher force and find inner peace.



What’s more, the Apsara dance honors the feminine ideal by expressing the beauty, charm, and elegance that are commonly associated with women. It is seen as an ode to the feminine spirit to honor Cambodian women’s significant role in society.


Apsara Dance Performance Venues

A must-see for visitors looking to see the country's traditional dance styles and cultural heritage, the Apsara dance is a renowned cultural show in Cambodia, often performed alongside dinner or as part of a cultural or historical presentation.

The best places to watch the Apsara dance are at the Angkor Wat temple complex, well-known for its nightly cultural shows, and the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, which holds weekly performances. In Siem Reap, tourists can also enjoy the show at the Royal Palace and many local restaurants as part of their dining experience. For more immersive and authentic enjoyment, travelers can visit Cambodia in mid-April, when the annual Angkor Sankranta celebration takes place during the Khmer New Year, with traditional dance and music performances and other cultural activities.



And finally, tourists who want to experience this show on a Mekong River voyage can book a cruise tour of Siem Reap-Phnom Penh for 5 days or vice versa or Saigon–Siem Reap for 8 days or vice versa at the Mekong River Cruise official website. Please contact our sales for cruise options and detailed information on cultural excursions during the journey.

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