The Natural History Museum inaugurates an exhibition on Cambodian dance

Every Sunday at the Cambodian Community Temple in Utah, dancers practice ancient dance moves. (Jeffrey Dahdah, KSL-TV)

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WEST VALLEY — Every Sunday at the Cambodian Community Temple in Utah, dancers practice ancient dance moves.

“It’s not just a dance,” said Londa Leung, who has been a member of the Khemera dance troupe since she was in third grade. “It’s not just a performance, it’s a whole story, it’s a way of explaining things for a long time.”

It’s an explanation that takes very specific steps to say.

“All the hand movements have a specific meaning depending on the role you play,” said Chanda Choun, the director of the Khemera dance troupe.

Choun said that without them, the meaning of dance can be lost. The Khemera Dance Troupe does this as a way to maintain a culture that was formed thousands of miles from Utah and many centuries before. The Khemera Dance Troupe specializes in traditional Cambodian dances.

“Dancing is an important part of Cambodian culture,” said Emily Seang, who joined the troupe while in high school and has been performing for eight years. “I just wanted to feel more connected to my culture.”

The group has been focusing on performing and perfecting traditional Cambodian dances since the year 2000.

“It’s important to preserve it, because in the 1970s we almost lost it, as 90 percent of the dancers were executed during the reign of Pol Pot,” Choun said.

Under Pol Pot’s rule, the Khmer Rouge killed up to 2 million people in five years during the 1970s.

“Our parents can’t even talk about it because of PTSD,” Leung said.

Leung had been on a three-year hiatus from the band, until recently.

Every Sunday at the Cambodian Community Temple in Utah, dancers practice ancient dance moves.
Every Sunday at the Cambodian Community Temple in Utah, dancers practice ancient dance moves. (Photo: Utah Museum of Natural History)

“It meant so much to the community and to myself that I really had to come back and show what Cambodian culture here in Utah can do,” Leung said.

This showcase arrived at the Utah Museum of Natural History in late October, the day the museum opened its exhibit titled Angkor, which details the history and culture of the Cambodian people.

“I don’t know how to describe it, but just having artifacts in the same building where I’m performing is something I never thought would happen,” Leung said after the performance.

The Khmer Rouge emphasized the destruction of artifacts from the previous rule, which makes the hundred or so Cambodian artifacts on display here at the museum significant to the Cambodian community in Utah.

“I have the hardest time wanting to go back to my parents’ home country because I have this guilt where I feel like I had a better life,” Leung said. “So it’s hard for me to want to go back and go through all of that.”

The museum worked with the Khemera Dance Troupe and other Cambodian leaders in Utah when organizing the exhibit.

“Our Cambodian partners who we have worked with throughout this exhibit,” said Beth Mitchell, the museum’s communications director. “It really helped us understand what life was like during this very, very difficult time.”

Through dance performances, the Khemera dance troupe clings to its culture.

“Just seeing their looks on their faces when their grandchildren perform these dances is priceless,” Choun said. “To see that little smile or that little tear in their eyes.”

While the exhibit is on display, the Cambodian community in Utah can share in the celebration of their culture without having to mourn the reign that tried to erase it.

“I think it’s a great way to talk about the amazing culture of Cambodians, without necessarily focusing on the negatives,” Leung said.

This is something Leung and the Khemera dance troupe do constantly. The dances not only help them celebrate and preserve their culture, but also welcome more people into it. The troupe welcomes everyone to weekly Sunday practices and welcomes the community to celebrate the Cambodian New Year with them each April.

“It creates this dialogue and creates this open space that allows everyone to learn more about each other,” Leung said.

After 20 years of existence, performing at the opening of Angkor was a great moment for the troupe.

“We started with Party City wreaths and here we are with all this love and support,” Leung said.

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