Dreams of the World: Apsara Dancer from Siem Reap (Cambodia)


This post is the latest in the series Dreams of the World, which profiles interesting people we meet during our travels.

“It looked like a girl from the sky. The most beautiful image I had seen” said Sophea-Kagna Ieu, 47, about the first time she saw a classical Apsara ballerina delicately positioning her arms and hands.  “It was the end of the horrific Khmer Rouge regime and I was about 13. One day, on my way home from school, I saw a window lit up with that image of a girl training to become an Apsara dancer. I stopped by every day until I had the courage to ask the teacher if I could learn too”. Sophea attended the Rachma School of Dance and trained rigorously for about two decades. “Before Apsara dance came to my life I spent three years in forced labor camps weeding grass and digging a minimum of one hundred sugar cane holes a day in exchange for a bowl of rice,” recalls Sophea. “I was only a child and I did not want to live. But I was strong and I survived.” Coping with the memories of war and driven by the powerful desire to dance for the gods, as Apsara dancers have done for centuries in the Khmer tradition, Sophea’s journey continued. Taking secret French lessons at a time when learning a European language was forbidden, she eventually found her way into a dance troupe that would go to Paris to bring Apsara dancing to exiled Khmers. The troupe was lead by HRH Princess Buppha Devi, whom Sophea admires profoundly for the sheer finesse of her movements and timeless elegance of her gestures.  “When I dance I feel like the people in the public are not humans but gods. My spirit goes out to them. I feel I am dancing in front of the gods,” explains Sophea who is part of Amansara Resort’s effort to support and maintain traditional Khmer culture through a select group of artists in Siem Reap. “Amansara’s exquisite interior design and the respect that is given to every performance is in line with the celestial nature of Apsara dancing.” My dream is to continue to promote Apsara dance, to become a good teacher and to have my own school where I can pass on my knowledge to children.”

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Human Journey

Meet the Author
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: www.colombiaphotoexpeditions.com