Angkor Dance preserves traditions of Cambodia for 30 years

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A dancer prepares for a show. Photos by Tory Germann.

By Rita Savard

Tim Thou understands the inhumanity of war.

He lost more than most people can ever imagine. His home. His parents. Ten of his 13 siblings. All destroyed with unflinching brutality when the Khmer Rouge government sought to eradicate Cambodia’s centuries-old culture by trying to kill everyone who was educated.

Between 1975 and 1979, historians estimate 90 percent of the country’s artists and intellectuals were murdered. Living through such horrors, Thou could have lost hope. Instead, he found a reason to keep his peoples’ traditions alive.

Thou was just 21 when he arrived at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand, traumatized by wartime experiences in the Khmer Rouge work camps and the deaths of nearly all his family. It was in the refugee camp, where Thou learned Cambodian folk dancing and became a certified dance instructor.

Thou’s grandmother, Katna Poeu, had been a classical dancer in Cambodia’s Royal Ballet. She taught Cambodian royalty, including a princess, the traditional dances that evoke the country’s tales of Gods and Goddesses, kings and queens, heroes and villains, farmers and country life.  

For Thou, learning to dance also meant connecting with his grandmother — a member of his family who survived the genocide like him. And teaching the art of dance, meant preserving the Cambodian peoples’ unique tradition for future generations.

In 1986 he created the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, which remains the city’s only nonprofit cultural group. The name comes from Cambodia’s great Angkor civilization, between 802 and 1432 AD, when Cambodia was a dominant empire in Southeast Asia.

“He understood the importance of really revitalizing and preserving the traditions that were nearly lost during the genocide,” said Linda Sou, Thou’s daughter who has been dancing since the age of three and is now president of the Angkor Board of Directors.

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Tim Thou in an early photograph. Thou founded the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell 25 years ago.

With the help of his grandmother, Thou began teaching others the classical repertoire that has more than 5,000 steps and gestures. Over the past 30 years, the dances have been passed on to their children.

The troupe is nationally recognized as one of the most accomplished and experienced Cambodian arts ensembles, with some of the troupe’s best and most seasoned performers being teens and young adults.

For these dancers, the Angkor troupe is family. 

“Without the troupe, I don’t think my parents would have been able to connect to Khmer arts,” said Monica Veth, principal dancer for the troupe’s upcoming performance of Apsara Dancing Stones. “It feels really good that I’m able to give back to my parents in that way.”

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Angkor dancers preserve the ancient dances of Cambodia.

Cambodia’s ancient dances could have been lost, buried along with the dead in the country’s mass, unmarked graves.

But thanks to Thou, and the healing power of art, the story of Angkor is much bigger than an ensemble presenting ethnic dances.

It’s about the survival of culture against all odds.

“I’m so privileged that I can share my culture with other people,” Thou said. “It’s a feeling that makes me so proud.”  

Learn more about The Angkor Dance Troupe here.

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