Recognition for the Tenth Dancer
|Em Theay - a zest for life undiminished by time and fate|
The following article, Cambodian Culture Reborn: My Story by Em Theay, appeared in the SGI Quarterly in January 2006:
I am 72 years old. Until recently I was a professor of traditional Khmer singing and dancing at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. My late father and mother worked as domestic helpers to the parents of the former King Sihanouk. So I grew up in the palace and started dancing lessons from when I was six years old. I danced and sang for the King for many years. I had a total of 18 children, but only 12 were still alive in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire population out of every city and town. When I was forced to leave Phnom Penh, what I treasured was three books that I had about dancing lessons and the art of Khmer dancing. The Khmer Rouge put me to work in a labor camp, but I hid the books until the end. They separated me from all of my children, even the very young. When I learned that one of my children had died, I requested the Khmer Rouge authorities to see my child's body. They denied me this. The next day I was forced to go to work in the fields as if nothing had happened. I cried inside, this was so sad and so cruel. When the same thing happened after the death of another of my children, I collapsed while working in the rice fields. When I woke up, I was in hospital.
Because they knew I was an actress, my life was spared, but not my children. Normally they considered entertainment business-related people to be parasites on society, and many were killed. Instead they found me useful. The local warlord liked my singing, so they asked me to sing and dance for them often. Later on they also used me to sing in a camp for orphaned children. After Cambodia was liberated from this genocidal regime, I walked to a nearby provincial town where I waited for news and searched for the rest of my children. I learned that seven had died or been murdered and that only five were left with me. I met a former student of classical dance who asked me to start teaching again. I taught and performed on the streets - at that time we traded dance for rice to eat. Over several months I was able to travel back toward the palace in Phnom Penh. When I got there, I was asked to be a cultural instructor, then later on the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts invited me to teach dance and singing.
Dancing brought back old memories of the good days and gave smiles to many people who were miserable at that time. Many children began to join dancing classes. Cultural activities like dance make our people gentle and humble. They make us pray to the heavenly beings who are greater than us. I was heartbroken when I learned that all things related to the arts and culture were totally ruined, but my love for art and culture made me think that we must revive whatever had disappeared. I dedicated my entire life to help raise it back to life and make the arts flourish again. Art and dance have been very important for Khmer life from ancient times until now. This is because culture reflects our society and shows Khmer sensitivities or thinking manifest in real form through choreography. It shows that Khmer people are full of grace and dignity, gentle and humble. It helps the next generation know their identity through the behavior and imagery of this dance. This classical dancing is also the way to let the world know Khmer people through our culture and art. We are afraid that our culture may be lost for future generations. These days there are new cultural elements which might change our traditional dancing style. In fact it has already changed. I feel hope for Cambodia's future every time I teach youngsters the art of dancing. I feel that this Khmer choreography is alive and that it will last and continue to develop from one generation to the next forever. It will not be diminished or die out as long as Cambodia exists on this planet.
Labels: Em Theay