Sacred traditions at risk amid Covid

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Sacred Dancers of Angkor have now danced at and reconsecrated 42 temples across Cambodia and Laos. SUPPLIED

As one of the first spiritual dance troupes in the world – created in 2007 by Ravynn Karet-Coxen, a Cambodian refugee based in London – Sacred Dancers of Angkor is more than just traditional performance art.

The dancers in the troupe are among the many whose livelihoods depend on a vibrant tourism industry and they have been deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

With no tourists, they have very little opportunity to generate sustainable income through their regular performances at the Divine Sala Theatre in Siem Reap.

And because of the special flame they have bound in spiritual world since then Ravynn has appealed people to help them continue this spiritual journey.

For more than 10 years the Sacred Dancers of Angkor have been praying daily for peace in the world and for the welfare of children. The medium of dance has not only healed and reconciled their families with their traditional cultural values, but also offers support to the children born in the sacred land of Angkor.

Ravynn – who was exiled in the1970s because of the Pol Pot regime – tells The Post of how she came up with the idea to create the Preah Ream Buppa Devi NKFC conservatoire.

“When I first came back to Cambodia in 1992 my heart was torn. Torn apart with the guilt of not having been here, in the country of my birth, to witness and stand with my fellow countrymen throughout our darkest times.

“I told myself to find ways to help and that’s when the NGO came into being. With the guidance and patience of many great experts working in the field of development, I found my way to the heart of the ancient Khmer Empire,” Ravynn says.

In 1999, the Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia (NKFC) was started. The foundation first worked with a handful of rural settlements next to Banteay Srei Temple and then grew over the years to assist 14 villages with 2,869 families living in abject poverty and almost utterly without hope.

“Somehow we simply weren’t making any real progress. There was still no hope in their hearts or light in their eyes,” Ravynn says.

In 2004, the NGO built a simple wooden sala at the foot of Phnom Dei, and there they started a small vocational training school. In 2007 they started a dance and music training programme for the children to complement their academics.

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Dancers make all of their crowns by themselves with palm leaves, which have special symbolism. Photo supplied

As soon as they started the dance classes, it was like the storm clouds passed and the sun shone through. Less people were dying and the livestock were in better condition – but in a way all that was inevitable after ten years of support.

Instead of bribing or forcing people to attend the training, they came in droves on their own.

Ravynn, who lives in England now and goes back and forth back, says that “I would love to be able to say it was by design, but the truth is that it was by chance that we stumbled on the key. It was a dance.”

HRH Princess Buppha Devi honored the NGO with her royal patronage and the children and their parents take this honour very seriously.

Before even being allowed to stand on the dance floor the dancer’s hair must be cleaned and brushed, their hands washed and clothes tidied. Only then are they permitted to train.

The discipline and training that they learn through their dance training delights their parents but when it comes time to perform something totally unexpected happens.

Somehow, as they step onto the dance floor, the children are transformed and it is as if the spirits of the Apsaras that grace the walls of the temples have imbued them with an otherworldly grace.

The troupe has also trained the first all female orchestra and they make their own costumes and crowns from natural fibers and flowers as a reflection of their humble backgrounds.

“The dancers make all of the crowns by themselves with palm leaves. When they use the leaves it’s a sign of Boung Suong [prayer]. They wear white for purity and they use mosquito nets because they Buong Suong [pray] for the malaria to go away. Everything we do involves symbolism,” says Ravynn.

After five years of training for six hours a day, five days a week at the conservatoire in Banteay Srei to become professional artists, the children were ready to perform the sacred dance in its intended setting in the temples at the request of the local communities and with the support of the Apsara Authority.

They troupe reached new heights of professionalism in 2017 as judged by their patron Samdech Preah Ream Buppa Devi. They have now danced at – or as some have put it “re-consecrated“ – 42 temples across Cambodia and Laos.

Their ultimate honour came when they were invited to perform their sacred dance ritual at the royal funeral of the late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk in the presence of His Majesty King Sihamoni and the Queen Mother.

Back in 2013 the Sacred Dancers of Angkor – with the support of the Cambodian government – was invited on a healing mission to the United States and performed in the finest venues in Boston, New York, Washington and Los Angeles.

They also performed daily sacred dance rituals to dedicate pagodas and touched the lives of thousands of Cambodian expatriates and other Americans.

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Sacred Dancers of Angkor make their own costumes and crowns, reflecting their humble background. Photo supplied

“The reason I brought them to the United States was because I wanted to link the souls of Cambodian-American refugees with the motherland. People across the world have seen them now and admired how professional they are,” she says.

Prior to Covid, every time the troupe performed it gave people goose bumps and many tourists witnessed and shared an amazing experience watching them perform.

Ravynn expresses sadness over the fact that while many truly appreciate the talent and respect the sacred nature of the dances being performed there are many Cambodians today who still take it lightly.

She says they don’t realize that if they lose this group they will be losing a big part of their heritage and culture.

Ravynn is appealing to the public for help because being a sacred dancer is a full time job. The preparations for the dances consume almost the whole day and the sacred dancers perform the dances daily so for them to find other jobs on the side is impossible.

Ravynn has been using her own money to provide their salaries since Covid-19 disrupted everything, but the financial burden is starting to wear on her and she says she needs some assistance from others in order to keep going.

The troupe has already gone from 176 members to just 25 members now remaining, something Ravynn grieves over already.

“This is my last thing. I’m not taking any more responsibility if [the Cambodian people] don’t take responsibility. I have given so much of my life, my time, my energy, my heart and soul and money. I respect and love our culture so deeply that’s why I don’t just wash my hands and walk away. It’s for the whole Cambodia.

“I do understand that Covid is affecting people all around the world but if at least 4,000 gentle souls could donate just $1 a month it will only cost them $12 a year until tourism resumes and this will ensure that the dance troupe will survive.

“The spiritual thread of the Sacred Dancers of Angkor must continue to honour the Gods, Divinities and Spirits of the sacred land,” she says.

For donations in Cambodia people can give via: ABA account 199 656 699 TOAN EK SOPHIE. International donations can be made at this link: https://www.nkfc.org/donate/