Folk dances

Last update: December 5, 2023


Arnold Van Gennep was the first, in 1924, to define folklore in the French-speaking cultural sphere as the "science of the people". Etymologically, "folk" comes from the Germanic people (from the Latin vulgus) and "lore" from the Saxon knowledge (cf. German lehren and English learn).

Following the folk movement from the 1960s onwards, the term "folk dance" referring rather to the practice of groups of folk arts and traditions (or folk groups) that enhance the repertoire through choreographed performances, performed in traditional costumes and generally describing scenes from the life of the old traditional society. This concept took shape in Cambodia in 1965 with the creation of the Royal University of Fine Arts (សាកលវិទ្យាល័យភូមិន្ទវិចិត្រសិល្បៈ - RUFA) in Phnom Penh to compensate for the progressive disappearance of popular dances and traditions. 

Folklorization is based on a political choice to which almost all the nations of the world have acceded. In Cambodia, it is essentially a tool for local cultural promotion because it is eclipsed internationally by the dazzling Royal Ballet of Cambodia, protected by UNESCO. However, the Khmer diaspora in the various countries of the world where they have been living since the 1970s use folk dances and the Apsara dance created by Queen Sisowath Kossamak to promote their cultural identity. Two types of folk dances have been created in Cambodia : 

  1. Those inspired by an ancestral peasant or ethnic tradition.
  2. Those of pure creation, nourished by gestures of daily life, traditions or ideals.

For a few years, throughout Cambodia, various troupes have continued to create dances and shows inspired by the glorious past of the Khmer Empire. However, without political endorsement, these creations do not reach the rank of "folk dance" labeled by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and taught at RUFA.

We present hereafter, when traditions persist, both the "source dance" and its folklorized version.

Folkloric dances inspired by a tradition

In his 2006 book, "Khmer Classical Dance, Khmer Folklore, Lakhon, Khmer Music", Sakou Samoth highlights the methodology used by the dance department officials in the 1960s to collect, create and legitimize folk dances :

1) Prospecting. Cambodia is systematically searched and all its traditional folklore folk manifestations are inventoried. 

2) Study. Let's take the example of a dance, which would have been recently discovered and would be of particular interest. A research team goes on site, records in all its details the movements and music by drawing, photography, and magnetic tape. It undertakes a thorough investigation of the ecological data: geographical, ethnic, economic, linguistic and cultural background. 

3) Reconstruction. After studying the collected documents, dancers and monitors go on site to learn the movements of the peasants themselves. Then, in Phnom Penh, they make an adaptation that can be presented on stage. 

4) Testing. The dance is presented to the village audience, whose reactions are carefully watched. It will only be adopted if these spectators give it their total adhesion, and show by their attitude that they are completely in tune with it. The conduct of this method requires a lot of tact and knowledge of peasant psychology. At no time should we shock the habits of thought and life of the villagers, our masters, and preserve their enthusiasm at all costs. If it should happen that, discouraged by our results, they abandon their tradition, we would have failed completely. If, on the other hand, they become proud of it, if it helps them to become aware of the value of their past, then the game will have been won. (Original in French)


Pailin Peacock Dance. Robam kngork Pailin

The Kola ethnic group, of Burmese origin, has been living in the Pailin area for about a century, attracted by the precious stones they extract from the subsoil. In Cambodia, the Kola are the original custodians of the so-called Pailin Peacock Dance, robam kngork Pailin របាំក្ងោកប៉ៃលិន.

The dance was choreographed by Prof. Chheng Phon and Prof. Pol Som Oeurn in 1965. Performed until 1975, and reintroduced in 1979, today it forms part of the curriculum in the Department of Choreography at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA).

According to a 1960s document from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, the original dance featured only one peacock and was performed only during the Khmer New Year festivities. It expressed the cultural soul of the Kola ethnic group. Later, choreographers organized it around two peacocks. If some people see a male and a female courting each other, ethology tends to think that it is rather a fight. The two costumes and the sex of the dancers are not differentiated. 


Today, it is danced in front of international tourists and during the festivals of the Khmer calendar. 

We propose hereafter two versions of the peacock dance. One in a ceremonial situation, the other for the stage.

This Pailin's peacock dance was performed on October 12, 2020 at Wat Aranh Sakor (Siem Reap) during Kathina (កឋិន), a ceremony specific to Theravada Buddhism. It takes place at the end of the annual monastic retreat in October-November. The laity offer the monks robes and everything necessary for monastic life. Here we see the couple of peacocks taking part in the procession and the dextrogyratory circumambulation around the temple (vihear). The artists danced in the temple square in the late afternoon after the devotees returned to pray with the monks.


This very polished version of Pailin's peacock dance was RUFA filmed on the stage of Cambodian Living Arts, in the enclosure of the National Museum of Cambodia, on March 7, 2020. The artists, supervised by the best choreographers in the country, are RUFA-trained entertainment professionals. At that time - and until the COVID-19 pandemic - they performed six days a week in front of an audience of international tourists.

Trot dance “source”

In Cambodia, the trot dance (robam trot របាំទ្រុត) is both a "source dance" of Mon-Khmer origin, and a folk dance adapted to the stage by the Khmers. In its original version, it still seems to be danced by the Samre, Suoy, and Por people. It is a propitiatory dance performed during the Khmer New Year, similar to the Chinese Unicorn Dance, as artists move from trade to trade to glean some obole. This sequence was shot during the Khmer New Year of 2017 in the center of Siem Reap. 

The orchestra consists of singers, a pair of percussion kancha, two drums skor day, a fiddle bicorde tro and three pairs of wooden tap-dances krap. The singing is in Khmer and includes onomatopoeia without meaning. 

Éveline Porée-Maspero, in her "Etude sur les rites agraires de Cambodgiens" (p.207 ff.), reports elements observed by herself in the 1940s and others reported to her. We will confine ourselves here to bringing together what can be compared concerning Siem Reap in order to document our video sequence. She writes: "The trot (...) is the walking representation of the killing of a deer by two masked characters, a representation combined with a quest. In Siem Reap, troops from the different surrounding villages come to quest. They then go to Angkor Wat, where they mime the drama as an offering to the Buddha, are blessed by the monks, and finish their trek on the banks of the Bàrày where the neighboring populations are used to picnic on the last day of the New Year celebrations. (...) All the troops from Siem Reap go dancing in Angkor Wat and then get blessed in the South Pagoda. According to the monk kru Ap of this pagoda, the troops must dance in front of the Buddhas of the central shrine of Angkor Wat, then come to the South pagoda to be sprinkled with holy water (...) If they do not do so, they will not avoid calamities. Once this little ceremony is done, they can return home without fear." (Original in French)

This last sentence could explain the pure reason why one of the girls carries to "basket" of fishing. In this sequence, there is no masked character representing the deer. This is, as Éveline Porée-Maspero already pointed out in the 1940s, an impoverishment of the ancient tradition.


Trot dance “folklorized”

This trot dance was filmed in 2013 during the closing ceremony of the 37th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee at the Sokha Hotel in Siem Reap after a violent storm forced the organizers to retreat. The festivities were initially planned to take place at the Elephant Terrace in Angkor Thom.

This trot dance, folklorized, conformed to the legend reported by Éveline Porée-Maspero: "the killing of a deer by two masked characters, a representation combined with a quest". It was choreographed by the dance mistress Luong Sok Kam who sings in this performance.


It is interesting to compare this folklorized representation with Éveline Porée-Maspero's description of source versions still alive in the late 1940s. "The composition of the troupes is, except for a few fantasies, always about the same. A man representing a deer straddles a curved stick, one end of which ends in a massacre of pros (Cervus aristotelis), the other in an imposing grassy tail from which a bell is usually hung. The deer's skull is sometimes covered with painted cardboard, where the eyes are underlined by the red and black seeds of the Abrus precatorius. These seeds also underline the eyes, eyebrows, and lips of the masks of the two dancers charged with killing the deer, which they do with wooden rifles after miming the deer's stalking and being chased by the beast. In addition to these figures, we see one or two dancers whose hands are lengthened by a kind of fake nails made of small braided rattan fingers whose long tips end in a red cotton pompom. The troupe that I saw in 1949 in Vat Athva (Vat Athvear), one of these dancers was equipped with two brooms of dry grass which he played very gracefully during his evolutions. A seeker holds a long curved pole at its end, with a cloth purse hanging at the base of the curve. The orchestra consists of four or five kancha players, a player of a flute (oboe) called a pei, a player of skor arak, and two ringing stick bearers. It is sometimes supplemented by a two-stringed violin (tro)." (Original in French)

Éveline Porée-Maspero adds an observation outside Siem Reap, but in the same province: "(...) one of the trotters is specially charged, while dancing, to "fish" with a chhneang (a woven basket that acts as a sieve to collect small fish hidden in the grasses of streams or ponds) the money thrown by the spectators (...)". 

It is clear that this folk dance is close to the reality described by the author. The age of the choreographer, Mrs. Luong Sok Kam (87 years old in 2020), is probably not unrelated to this. Indeed, she lives in Siem Reap and has probably been an eyewitness to the source dances produced by the Samre people in the streets of the city at the time of the Khmer New Year.


Cardamom Picking Dance. Robam Bes Kravagn

This dance comes from the Por ethnic group of the Kravagn district, Pursat province (Cambodia). It depicts a ceremony once celebrated by the Por people before their departure to the Cardamom Mountains where they went to collect forest products.

The dance's choreography was revised in 1984, and is currently performed by dancers from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

Buffalo Sacrifice Dance. Robam Kap Krabey Pheok Sra

This dance is an evocation of the sacrificial practices of the animist ethnic groups of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. The most important ceremonies of these peoples are accompanied by the sacrifice of one or more water buffaloes, the playing of sets of gongs and libations of rice beer preserved in jars; it is drunk with fine bamboo flashlights according to a rigorous protocol, generally devastating for the biological organism!

Such folkloric representation of the religious ritual of one people (the above-mentioned minorities) by another people (Khmer) is a common practice in the national cultural showcase of Southeast Asian countries.

This dance was created by a team of researchers : Profs. Chheng Phon, Hang Soth, Phim Chheang, Kong Vuth, and Chrang Proeurng. It was performed between 1965 and 1975 and has been revived since 1979.

Creative Dances

If some dances have been developed from a village tradition, the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) of Phnom Penh has created new dances inspired by the gestures of daily life, traditions or even ideals: rice pounding, harvesting, weaving or the concept of national independence. These creations were based on a rigorous observation of the gestures of the peasantry before translating them artistically.


Coconut Dance

The very joyful coconut dance (robam kuos traloak របាំគោ្រលោក) is a parable of love. It features boys and girls searching for each other by banging perfectly polished coconut shells to the rhythm of phleng kar wedding music, whose rather slow tempo sometimes gets a little carried away. By its shape, this fruit (drupe) symbolizes the heart. Boys and girls exchange their feelings, turn around each other, and bring out meaningful smiles, while remaining good-natured, a folklorized form of courtly love.

This dance has been particularly successful because it can be performed across the country, especially in wedding processions. It was developed in 1965 by Professor Pun Chhay in RUFA, following field research with the help of a certain Mr. Watt, a teacher in an elementary school in the province of Svay Rieng. The Coconut Dance was created on stage in 1966.


Fishing Dance

The Fishing Dance (robam nesat របាំនេសាទ) explores the world of the sneaky fisherman. They dance with traditional tools. We discover two methods of catching fish: woven bamboo baskets, called chhneang ឆ្នៀង and bell-shaped traps, angrut អង្រុត. Women scrape the bottom of ponds or raze the banks of streams with a chhneang that acts as a sieve, holding only small fish. Men use the angrut to catch larger specimens. The dance was choreographed in 1967 by Mr. Vann Sun Heng, and supervised by Prof. Chheng Phon. It was performed from 1967 until 1975, and has been revived since 1979.

At the beginning of the dance, the young men go down to the river on one side and the women on the other. Both express their joy; to meet each other far from the village space.  As they fish, they flirt with each other. The boys tease the girls by tearing their baskets away. Love and romance are the favorite themes of Khmer stories and dances. At the end of the dance, the majority of the group leaves, leaving behind a young couple of lovers before returning to tease and congratulate them.

The video of the "fishing basket" below allows us to understand the choreographic process by referring to the source and to distinguish two distinct types of tools. The woman uses a chhneang ឆ្នៀង and the girl uses a bangki បង្គី. The first one allows to scratch the bottom of the pond thanks to its transversal "lip". The second has two handles and no lip; it only allows surface fishing under the grass.


Weavers' Dance

This dance (robam chie chue របាំជៀជឿ) was filmed during the 2016 Khmer New Year celebrations at the Elephant Terrace in Angkor Thom. It decomposes the manufacturing process of silk fabrics: breeding silkworms, processing cocoons, dyeing, weaving. 

The short documentary video below summarizes the silk production process in Cambodia's most prestigious silkworm nursery: Golden Silk Pheach. A documentary film on its history is available here.


Mats Dance

This dance was filmed during the 2016 Khmer New Year celebrations at the Elephant Terrace in Angkor Thom. It breaks down the process of making rice straw mats.