Cambodian dance-arts lives on with CAGE

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Lanica Angpak and Melinda Son are second-generation Cambodian-American women who have been dance partners performing the once-forbidden Khmer classical dance. Khmer classical dance has roots in animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Now as co-directors of CAGE- Cambodian American Girls Empowering, which Angpak founded in 2015,  the 10-member dance troupe performs at the community centers, schools, and museums, including the Barnes Foundation on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

Earlier this month Angpak and Son talked about their company’s artistic mission at CultureWorks studios in Center City. They explained that their families fled Cambodia to escape the communist dictator Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge army in the 1970s, a regime that sought to eradicate centuries of any free expression of Cambodian traditional art and culture.

“Art and dance was a big part of my family’s identity. But during the Khmer genocide…anything that had to do with art and culture had to be hidden away.” Angpak recalls that her mother “was a  dancer and she learned to dance from her uncles and cousins.”

“From about age two to six, I was just following my mother around, mimicking her, but then my uncle, Chamroeun Yin, took me in hand and taught me how to do it properly,’” Angpak said. Yin is currently teaching Cambodian dance at Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia. Melinda noted that she first started learning how to dance from Angpak’s family and her interest grew from their influence.

Fast forward to Angpak’s college years, the future CAGE directors started teaching high school students, all second generation Asian-Americans, the techniques and choreographies of Cambodian folkloric dance.   After college, Angpak wanted to take a break and basically, her students wouldn’t let her. Half of the current CAGE dancers are made up of that first group of devoted high school students.

Angpak noted that they “now have eight young women and two young men we work with on performances and projects.” They also teach a weekly class with 25 students that include parents in collaboration Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia.

CAGE’s mission is to not only resurrect an important part of their cultural heritage, they “wanted to have tough conversations, our own space to ask hard and uncomfortable questions. It has transformed into a non-profit dance troupe, where we use our art, which is Cambodian classical and folk dance as a form of activism to tell our own stories,” Angpak explained. “To have conversations with audiences that we have in our own circle- about sexuality, gender, relationships and other issues of identity.”

“I was doing community work with 1Love Movement Philadelphia, an anti-deportation group working specifically with Cambodian-American community.” In 2015, Lanica was awarded the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award for her work in the community and arts.   In 2018, she was appointed to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs.

CAGE’s restoration the classical Cambodian dance choreography Angpak explains, “mostly tells stories from the epic poems from The Ramayana, the Hindu text, with the folklore, legends, and tales told in dance as a way to learn about the world,” she observes. “there are stories about Goddesses, the creation of Lightning and Thunder, adventure stories and fantasy fables like The Monkey King and the Mermaid. It’s like Homer’s Odyssey. We might only know a chapter of the full stories- We don’t have the full library of it. I’ve been dabbling with creating new choreography,” Angpak said, but mostly “We feel like archeologists… finding parts of history that were there and now we’re polishing it and refining.”

“The symbolism of the stories can even be a key to conversations about feminism, empowerment, and activism,” she observes. “For our group, the idea of feminism is very new.  Any advancement that Cambodian women made was all overshadowed by genocide. Even now, Asian women are stereotyped and it’s hard to navigate your identity as a second-generation Asian-American.”

Angpak calls herself a “proud feminist,” but she tells her dancers “I want to let you find your own power, I don’t expect you to take on whatever I take on.”  Meanwhile, it’s all about community, dance heritage and the rejuvenation of their shared cultural heritage.

As well as being an accomplished dancer and teacher, Son is also a classical vocalist, currently in college, raising her two sons, and like Angpak dedicated to preserving and amplifying the presence of Khmer dance, arts, and culture.

CAGE’s 3rd Annual Valentine’s Day Workshop, a free event at Bok Meeting Space 821 Dudley Street, Philadelphia on Saturday, February 16, 2019.
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