South South East Asia

Cambodian Dance Supports Cultural Identity in Minnesota

ASEAN The Mekong Asia

Wat Munisotaram, located in Hampton, Minnesota, recently issued an open call for dancers to join the Wattanak Dance Troupe in hopes of preserving and promoting Cambodian culture in the United States. Cambodian dance, steeped in Hindu and Buddhist tradition, is an important marker of cultural identity. The many varieties of Cambodian dance can trace their roots to the Angkorian Empire, which ruled over much of mainland Southeast Asia from roughly 802 C.E. to 1431 C.E. and influences Cambodian culture through the modern day.

Cambodian dance is diverse and includes a variety of styles, both classical and traditional. Cambodian classical dance was historically practiced in the royal court, accompanied by a traditional orchestra. Cambodian folk dance, on the other hand, is performed for community ceremonies or as a medium of storytelling.

Despite its storied history, many aspects of Cambodian culture came under attack during the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. Traditional art forms, including the many varieties of Cambodian dance, were in danger of disappearing forever. Many Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge first learned traditional dances while living in refugee camps along the Cambodian-Thai border. Subsequently, they introduced traditional dances to the United States, where they are practiced today in hopes of imparting traditional culture onto a new generation of young Cambodian Americans.

The Wattanak Dance Troupe, established in 2000, once practiced their art at Wat Munisotaram, but recently relocated their practice sessions to Minneapolis in order to increase their reach. They serve as an important pillar of the Cambodian community in the Minnesota, performing traditional dances to open local events and to bless gatherings. Members of the community have emphasized the importance of preserving Cambodian traditions in the United States, where Cambodian dance has become an important part of the community’s shared identity.

Cambodian Americans are an important part of Minnesota’s community today. Minneapolis ranks among the top ten municipalities in terms of Cambodian American populations, while Minnesota has one of the largest Cambodian American populations of any US state. The important cultural contributions of the Cambodian American community to Minnesota and the United States writ large exemplify the ties between the United States and Cambodia.

Brendan Stewart is an East-West Center Young Professional Program Participant. He is a student in Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service program.