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Photo: Jose F. Moreno / Inquirer Staff Photographer
In South Philadelphia, young Khmer women are earning to perform traditional Cambodian dance.

When one marginalized community taps into its roots and strengthens its identity, other ethnic groups may benefit, too. Consider this story about young Cambodian women in South Philadelphia and their how traditional dances are often performed for neighboring communities of color.

Bethany Ao reports at the Inquirer, “When Lanica Angpak started the organization Cambodian American Girls Empowering three years ago as a personal project, she visualized it as a safe space where young Cambodian women could talk about ‘taboo’ topics they didn’t feel comfortable discussing with their families.

“But when Angpak broached that idea with the women she was mentoring at the time, the group had an addendum: They wanted Angpak to teach them traditional Cambodian dance.

” ‘I was already teaching some of them,’ said Angpak, who learned how to dance from her mother. ‘But bringing it into this organization allowed us to build bridges through dance.’

“On a recent Sunday, the organization gathered at Bok Bar, a popular rooftop bar in South Philly with gorgeous views of the Philadelphia skyline, for a sunny afternoon workshop performance.

“The women slipped off their shoes and completed stretches that were harder than your average yoga pose. Eventually, they shifted into formation and performed a dance about a Cambodian celebration for young children. The dancers moved slowly, but their movements required just as much precision as ballet. Their mastery of balance was impressive, as was their flexibility. …

“Cambodian dance is a crucial part of storytelling in the country’s culture. It has existed for thousands of years and draws its roots from Indian mythology and religion. Every component of the dancer’s body is engaged during a performance, from their fingertips to their facial expressions. …

“The Philly area has the fourth largest Cambodian population in the United States — about 13,000, according to the most recent census — centered in South Philly. Angpak works closely with the Cambodian Association to help support the community here. Besides the performances, CAGE also holds dance workshops for females as young as 6 and as old as 72.

” ‘On average, we do about 14 performances a year, and we’ve already surpassed that number this year,’ Angpak said. ‘We prioritize public events.’ … The group particularly enjoys performing for organizations representing other communities of color.

“Angpak said dance is an alternative way of sharing between communities, an exchange of culture and art, of sorts. The organization charges on a sliding scale for performances. Workshops, including the one at Bok Bar next month, are free and open to the public.”

More at the Inquirer, here. And click here for my 2017 post about how Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, half-sister of Cambodia’s King, is working to reenergize the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. Perhaps some of these Philadelphia women and girls will get a chance to audition for that.

Photo: Jose F. Moreno / Inquirer Staff Photographer
A mother and daughter learn traditional Cambodian dance at the Bok Bar in South Philadelphia. Cambodian American Girls Empowering (CASE) helps women and girls preserve their heritage through traditional Cambodian dance.

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