In Cambodia, in my lifetime, somewhere between one and a half and two million people died under the brutal regime known by the world as the Khmer Rouge, and by the Khmer Rouge as the Angkar, or Organization. The world sees the Khmer Rouge as an ultracommunist revolution; The Angkar saw themselves, largely, as an American resistance movement. I am an American. When I am in Cambodia, I gather together with people my age—survivors, all—and their children, and their children’s children, to dance along the revitalizing waterfront.
If you can imagine this: Cambodians are emerging from generations of poverty, in place both before and after the four years of starvation, forced labor, and mass killings we call the Khmer Rouge regime. The country is in the midst of an economic boom. In recent years, there has not been enough to eat. Now there is enough that many also exercise.
I am from the US, where much of that boom comes from. Both now—as in economic development (the country uses the US dollar widely)—and in the past. In the late 1960’s, Nixon’s Operation Menu carpet-bombed the neutral country, killing peasants and their source of food, livestock and rice paddies, resulting in the deaths, some estimate, approaching the numbers of those later killed under the Khmer Rouge. Now you can see why we might also refer to them as the Angkar.
As dusk gathers there along the waterfront, I take my place in a row of people and wait. We will do aerobics. That is what it will seem like from the outside. But we will perform a mix of tradition and innovation, to a whole new music, a whole new life.
Have you thought about how it feels in your body to hear new music? I have. When your mind does not do the recognizing; your heart does. The sounds are strange, and twist your face awkwardly. You do not want to submit to them. You listen, organize the eruptions sonically and then follow them with your mind, hoping to parse the logic behind them, compartmentalize them into: harmony, melody, syncopation, rhythm. You think all of these things, but these thoughts only come after you feel.
Hearing a new band is not the same as hearing new music. A new band plays the same instruments as the old band did, but they take different places on the stage, rearrange the same sounds. A new band sounds familiar enough, at first, that you can decide: I like this. Or, I do not like this. About new music you can only say to yourself: why is this happening to me? It is as confusing as true love.
Genuinely new music, barely comprehensible as planned yet so sequential that you feel your heart wanting to move, demanding to respond, it is something and while you cannot identify it, your body strains to become a part of it. I am not a good dancer but when the sounds in the air change, something in my chest starts pushing me up from the inside. Come on, it urges my mind. Do not waste this moment. We know what to do with this. We have been waiting for it.
Noises I have not heard before, combined with some that I might have heard, but never in the context of entertainment, of joy. What I am hearing is so very unfamiliar it is assaulting me with newness, with foreignness, with strangeness, but somewhere below all that: the comfort of structure.
An odd structure, to be sure. But one recognizes integrity by instinct. When you walk into a very strange feat of architecture, you do not say: This is not a building. This thing I am standing inside will fall down, surely. For it is too late. You are already inside. And that is a form of trust. And trust is a form of love.
The music that plays along the riverside I call hip-hop Apsara. Some of it is hip hop, derived from young people of color in the Bronx, in America, demanding change, pushing toward the future, writing over a past in spraypaint and bubble letters on the streets, very far away from where I am learning to dance. Some of it is Cambodian music, the lilting sounds to which the Apsara is traditionally performed, a ballet that moves slowly and serenely. There is a resultant rhythm, a logic. There is dissonance, but not enough to make me cry. Or exactly enough to make me cry, but only when the music wants me to. I stop struggling, and start dancing. Because although it is confusing, it feels like love.
In the Apsara, young women bend hands backward at the wrists. It is impossible, proof that they can perform any task. They move forward, shuffling, slowly proceeding, no change to their torsos, heavy headpieces secure and unmoving. Their costumes are complicated and thick. Girls who are traditionally kept out of school after the third grade, whose only job options are work in the garment industry. Or, and we must not say this aloud, sex work. The weight of the ornate headpiece was the biggest challenge women faced besides daily survival.
In breakdancing, young men throw themselves to the ground. Or move as if robotic. Spin on parts from which it would seem hard to keep balance: a shoulder, a hip, a head. They can do this. Dare them not to. Just try.
These dances take advantage of discomfort, find beauty in unsteady progress. They are separated by decades, by hundreds of years. Except when they are combined. In Cambodia’s capital city, an emerging middle class gathers, every night, to exercise. Most of the nation’s residents still live in poverty. Some do not. Most investments are foreign, as are most consumer goods advertised. Continued economic development of the country depends on outside forces, many of whom simply want to profit. Some do not. What to do in the confusion, but dance.
On the waterfront, young men stand at the front of self-organized rows of middle-aged Khmer Rouge regime survivors, survivors of American bombing campaigns. Kids are there too. The young men wear slightly baggy shirts, or pants low on their waists. You will recognize them as dressing in a hip-hop style only if you are accustomed to Cambodian fastidiousness: that baseball cap is slightly too large, and a shade off-kilter. Until he begins to show you how to move to these sounds. His arm raises, awkwardly. There are too many noises, too many of them high and screechy. I think, How am I supposed to move to this? Because I need to. Move to this. And he continues, lifting a whole leg as if in deep muck. A step to the right. Percussive bass. A slow but graceful twist of the arm. A celebration of a future, of progress.
It is lucky that there are dance moves. It is lucky that it is an exercise, that sprightly young men will show a nation of survivors how to move, that there are long lines of people all across the entire public way of Cambodia, the first park, a place to gather now that people want to. It is lucky that the sounds for me—Asian, airy, foreign, and street, throbbing, familiar—are combined, because each of them, on their own, might get lost in all the change.
*All images are previews from a book called Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present, to be released on Green Lantern Press August 28, 2012.