Apsaras are an embodiment of the ideal female beauty in Cambodian culture. Both modern and ancient Khmer artists rendered them elaborately and with great emotional intensity.
Dance in Cambodia is as ancient as the temples of Angkor, whose carved facades seem to dance. A single gallery in Angkor Wat alone features over 1,500 of these dancing nymphs, synonomous with the Cambodian idea of beauty. The word apsara derives, like much of the culture of ancient Angkor, from Indian Hindu influences. Apsaras were lesser goddesses of unimaginable beauty who danced for the entertainment of higher gods.
The dancers originally performed topless, and so they are often depicted in has-relief. It was only due to later Chinese influence that they began performing clothed. The dances features over 4,500 body movements known in Khmer as kbach. A pin peat ensemble consisting of oboes, xylophones, gongs and drums provides musical accompaniment along side singers who narrate the stories.
The term "apsara dance" today is interchangeable with court classical dance. At the height of the Khmer Empire, it is estimated that there were 3,000 Apsara dancers in the 12th century court of King Jayavarman VII. When Angkor was sacked in at the begining of the 15th century, the Apsara dancers were seized and taken to Thailand. Classical dance survived, and its influence spread throughout the region.
The Khmer Rouge considered dancing to represent the decadent Royalist society itwas determined to stamp out. Its proponents were executed or sent from their city homes to work in a countryside they did not understand. It is estimated that 90 percent of all dancers and musicians were killed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge regime. Along with them died the knowledge of many dance and theatre forms. Thankfully, those who survived have dedicated themselves to preserving this ancient art of Cambodian culture, and passing it on to the next generation.