What a beautiful Cambodian New Year Festival this year at the Tenderloin Recreation Center in San Francisco! Although the official Cambodian New Year begins April 13, communities in the Bay Area will be holding celebrations all April long. I was very fortunate to attend the SF festival on April 2.
The community-organized event included traditional dance performances, breakdancing, a spoken word performance, food, a fashion show, and music music music! There was the amazing electric guitar stylings of Khmer pop that was in vogue in Cambodia in the 1960s and early 1970s before the Khmer Rouge, traditional flute (khui), xylophone (krim), mouth organ (kaen), and drum (gong) performances as well as many local singers.
One of my favorite performances was the traditional girls dance known as “Robam Neary Chea Jour,” which is meant to celebrate the beauty and grace of Cambodian women.
The five little girls practiced this dance for four hours every Saturday for the past two months. This was their very first performance!
Their amazing teacher is Ratha Chuon Kim, who volunteers with the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage and Musical Performing Arts center in Oakland, www.seachampa.org, where she teaches Khmer social dance. “I am not a professional dancer, I just love dance and learning about it!” says the ever modest Ratha. “I first learned social dance from my dad, an art form that’s easily learned through observation and asking questions.” Later Ratha studied folk dance at the Nagara Dhamma Temple for two years, where the head teacher–Theap Kong–had studied dance before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, a rare teacher indeed! Ratha later started a classical Khmer dance program with the Cambodian Community Development Inc. and for the next four years went to every practice so that she could assist and learn from the classically trained dancers.
If you watch the video of the little girls dancing closely, you can see several women in the background wiping tears from their eyes. It truly was moving to see these young girls learning about the beauty of their culture and heritage.
The vicious Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians during the 4 years of their reign of terror. During that time, 90 percent of Cambodia’s educated population as well as artists, dancers, and trained musicians died.
Despite the tragedies that almost every single Cambodian family in America has experienced, many in the community are coming together to pass on the rich and beautiful traditions of Khmer culture.
As you can see from the pictures, there was nothing but joy at this Cambodian New Year Festival!
Check out this breakdancing performance:
And good krama (from the folks at www.goodkrama.com), who buy these traditional scarves directly from the women who make them in Cambodia and donate a portion of the proceeds to help women and children in Cambodia.
Last but not least, I was thrilled to see Sandra Sengdara Siharath, the founder of www.seachampa.org.