Dancing Through the Dark


The power of Cambodian dance can hit a Westerner like a thunderbolt.

That’s what happened to Toni Shapiro when she worked among survivors of the genocidal years of the Pol Pot regime, 1975-79, in a refugee camp in Indonesia.

And that’s what happened to filmmaker Janet Gardner when she visited Phnom Penh in 1990 as part of the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project delegation.

Drawing on Shapiro’s work, her own experience and a number of Cambodian dancers dedicated to preserving this endangered art form, Gardner made an hourlong documentary, “Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia.”


It will be broadcast at 3 p.m. Sunday on KOCE-TV Channel 50.

Working with refugees, Shapiro noticed interesting cultural differences.

“Among the 10,000 people there from Vietnam, there was poetry and painting and rock ‘n’ roll played on donated instruments,” Shapiro said in a recent interview from her Berkeley home. “Among the 300 Cambodians--who had escaped from these horrible circumstances--there was dancing. They were performing for each other. I was completely overwhelmed by this.”

The Cambodians were not professional dancers, however.

“Mostly, they were people from the countryside. For some reason, they felt this was an important thing to do in the midst of this loss and inhumanity. I was moved to try to figure out what the meaning of dance was for the people of Cambodia.”

To do so, she wrote a dissertation, “Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia,” at Cornell University on the relationship between war and dance in Cambodia from 1975 to the present.

That research inspired Gardner, a documentary filmmaker who had gone to Phnom Penh to take pictures for the United Nations.

“I fell in love watching the monkey dancers practice,” Gardner said in a recent interview from her offices in New York. “The little boys were just astonishing. They were just so amazing, so mischievous. I was very captivated by them.

“The dance was astonishingly beautiful, and I knew that it was threatened. The Khmer Rouge had wanted to kill anybody who was an intellectual or an artist, or in some cases who even wore glasses. During the Khmer Rouge years, artists had to go underground and even pretend they were someone else, fake professions and fake biographies.”


Her film focuses on Thavro Phim, whose father, brother and grandfather were among the more than 1 million Cambodians who died during the Khmer Rouge years. It follows him on a return to Cambodia in 1998 for a reunion with surviving family and teachers.

A brilliant monkey dancer, Phim is 25 years old in the film. He’s now 28. He and Shapiro married in 1997 and live in Berkeley.

“You cannot generalize about the Khmer Rouge years,” Phim cautioned. “Not everybody was killed because they were dancers or city people. Not everybody was killed because they were intellectuals. . . .

“It is very complicated. But it is true that after the Khmer Rouge, 80% to 90% of the artists, musicians, actors and dancers died from starvation or were killed. Only a handful survived, and immediately after the Khmer Rouge years, they reopened the School of Fine Arts. They wanted this knowledge to remain alive and be carried on.”

There are four main roles in Cambodian dance--god, goddess, giant and monkey, Phim said. Gods, goddesses and monkeys are good characters; giants are evil.

Cambodian dance is not just a form of entertainment, Phim said. It represents Cambodian culture itself.

“As Cambodians, we feel, if the culture falls apart, the country, the nation will disappear. It has a very important role in society.

“To be a Cambodian dancer or a classical dancer, you do not feel you are only a dancer. You feel like you carry a very important part of Cambodian culture in you. It’s a way of connecting the present to the past, the people to their ancestors.

“This is a very critical period,” he added. “Right now, compared to the years immediately after the Khmer Rouge, yes, I have a strong hope for the survival of the culture. We have 300 young people in the dance school in Cambodia.

“But conditions there are still very unsettled. The people are still very unsettled. The country must try to find a way to strengthen itself. I’m not quite 100% sure that the arts are going to survive. We need to be strong and have a strong commitment to them. You never know what is going to happen.”

* “Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia” will air at 3 p.m. Sunday on KOCE-TV Channel 50.

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at