Utah Cambodian Community excited about Natural History Museum exhibit

Nov 10, 2022, 3:50 PM | Updated: Nov 14, 2022, 9:57 am
(Jeffrey Dahdah/ KSL TV)...
(Jeffrey Dahdah/ KSL TV)
(Jeffrey Dahdah/ KSL TV)

WEST VALLEY, Utah — Every Sunday at the Utah Cambodian community temple, dancers practice ancient dance moves.

“It not just a dance,” Londa Leung, who has been a member of the Khmera Dance Troupe since she was in third grade, said. “It’s not just a performance, it’s a whole story, it’s a way to explain things way back when.”

Londa Leung talks about her experiences dancing. (Jeffrey Dahdah/ KSL TV)

It’s an explanation that take very precise steps to tell.

“All of the hand movements have a specific meaning depending on the role you are playing,” Chanda Choun, the Khmera Dance Troupe Director said.

Choun said otherwise, the meaning of the dance can get lost. The Khmera Dance Troupe does this as a way of holding on to a culture that formed thousands of miles away from Utah and several centuries before. The Khemera Dance Troupe – specializes in the traditional dances of Cambodia.

“Dancing is a significant part of Cambodian culture,” Emily Seang, who joined The Troupe while in high school and has been performing for eight years said. “I just wanted to feel more connected with my culture.”

The group has been focused on performing and perfecting Cambodian Traditional Dances since the year 2000.

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

Under the rule of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge killed between one and a half and two million people in a five year span during the 1970s.

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

Leung had been on a three year hiatus from the group until recently.

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

That showcase came in late October at the Utah Natural History Museum on the day The Museum opened up its exhibit titled Angkor, which details the Cambodian people’s history and culture.

“I don’t know how to describe it, but just to have artifacts in the same building where I am performing is something that I didn’t think would ever happen,” Leung said after the performance.

The Khmer Rouge put an emphasis on destroying artifacts from previous rule, which makes the 100 or so Cambodian artifacts displayed here at the museum important to the Cambodian community of Utah.

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

The Museum worked with the Khmera Dance Troupe and other Cambodian leaders in Utah when curating the exhibit.

(Jeffrey Dahdah/ KSL TV)

“Our Cambodian partners that we’ve worked with throughout the course of this exhibit,” said Beth Mitchell, director of communications for Natural History Museum. “Have really helped us to understand what life was like during that very, very difficult period.”

Through the dance performances, The Khmera Dance Troupe holds on to its culture.

“Just seeing their looks on their faces when their grandkids are performing these dances is priceless,” Choun said. “Seeing that little smile or that little tear that beads up in their eyes.”

While the exhibit is on display, they can share in celebrating 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 that the Cambodians have, without necessarily having to focus on the negative aspects to it,” Leung said.

Which is something Leung and the Khmera Dance Troupe do constantly. The dances not only help them celebrate and preserve their culture, but helps them welcome more people into it. The Troupe welcomes anyone to weekly Sunday practices and welcomes the community to celebrate the Cambodian New Year with them each April.

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

After 20 years of existence, performing at Ankgor’s opening was a big moment for The Troupe.

“We started with party city crowns and here we are with all this love and support,” Leung said.

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Utah Cambodian Community excited about Natural History Museum exhibit