I teach dance in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and one of my Khmer friends from work asked me to present a contemporary dance duet at her wedding. Leak was having two weddings: one for her family in Battambang and one in Phnom Penh. I asked one of my dance students, Dara, to perform with me. We practiced our routine for weeks, then off we went to Battambang for the first edition:
The day begins at 5:45 a.m., but while my 18-year-old student Dara and I are bleary-eyed, the wedding tent has already taken over the street and music is blaring when we arrive. I’m ushered inside to find my friend Leak being turned into a goddess by a team of makeup-and-hair artists.
Although Dara and I are here to perform for the evening reception, I’ve been invited to the morning ceremonies. Looking around, I see only relatives, family resemblances painted across their faces. I’m the only white person and probably the only non-relative. It’s completely nerve-wracking. What does one do at a Khmer wedding?
What does one do at a Khmer wedding?
Thankfully, I’m not hung out to dry. A traditional outfit has been prepared for me and an aunt has been assigned to keep me company and show me where to go and what to do. As guests arrive, I reflect that they’re just like any other wedding guests. The ladies group together, either bleary-eyed like me or looking thrilled with themselves and their fancy outfits, all of them in brilliant colors. The older women wear mostly brown and sit in special chairs, calm and smiling. The men are at their own end, looking subdued in plain colors, button-up shirts, and trousers.
A traditional outfit has been prepared for me and an aunt has been assigned to keep me company.
The ceremonies last over six hours. There are at least six different ceremonies, starting with the parade of gifts. The aunt in charge of the Barang (that’s me, the foreigner) hands me a silver platter with a box of sweets on it. Everyone, some sixty strong, each with their own gold or silver platter of fruit or sweets, parades around the block, the musicians, the parents, and the groom in front.
There are at least six different ceremonies, starting with the parade of gifts.
No one is more beautiful than a woman on her wedding day and Leak is no exception. Over the course of the morning, she appears in at least six different outfits. Each ceremony—each with its own meaning of honoring the ancestors, handing over the children to each other, giving luck and blessings—is separated by a change of clothes.
No one is more beautiful than a woman on her wedding day and Leak is no exception.
The wedding is strangely familiar. The guests mill about as any guests at a wedding, wondering how long the ceremony will take, except here there is food to eat, breakfast and lunch. Close relatives vanish into the room off the tent every so often to perform their duties of giving gifts or whatever it may be, then return and wait at the tables. The musicians sit to the side and play, not watching anything. The MC has a microphone and the speakers are cranked.
Although I’m not family, Leak’s relatives are kind, including me in the ceremonies, finding places for me to sit, and complimenting my outfit. They love that I’m wearing traditional clothes, that I speak their language, that I’m there.
With the ceremonies finally over and time for a nap and food, Dara and I head to the wedding reception for the real work. We’re ushered to the artists’ room, where the makeup and hair artists are hanging out. They want to know if I’m planning to do any more makeup. I say I don’t have any, and suddenly I’m ushered into a chair, and one starts painting my face like a canvas. When he’s done, he starts on my hair, and a half hour later the transformation is complete.
The preparation following is not serene at all—there’s a problem with the music that Dara runs off to deal with and then we’re asked to dance now. I ask for ten minutes to warm up, which is granted, and then we’re escorted out the door.
The stage is tiny. The hall is enormous. A few hundred tables are filled with people eating, most of whom have never seen contemporary dance. I’m petrified.
Leak asked for a love duet. Dara is a Cambodian dancer who attended every day of the workshops I initially came to Cambodia to teach. His training is in classical Cambodian dance, all straight arms and swayed backs, the careful unfolding of the fingers, but I was impressed from day one with his sheer ability to move. Since then, I’ve been constantly looking for opportunities to get him training and experience, and each time I’m amazed by his talent.
Because we’re dancing together this time, I choreographed the duet to play with the idea of cross-cultural relationships, loosely telling a story of two people who don’t speak the same movement language—his the controlled shapes of classical Cambodian dance, and mine the gentle curves of ballet—negotiating the divide because they fall in love, compromising on a more contemporary version of both.
It’s a simple dance, but the fact of the matter is this: it’s not the movement language of the audience, and I have no idea how they’ll react. But much like the relatives this morning, the “divide” I worried about doesn’t exist. Our performance isn’t perfect, but people pay attention. In fact, they stop eating, they turn, they pull out cell phones and cameras. They’re with us, every step of the way.
The evening finishes with a grand old party. The father of the bride gets roaringly drunk and starts feeding people shots of whiskey—including me, three times, although the mother of the bride tries to protect me. People dance, laugh, drink. As with any other wedding.
All of the cultural divides I worried so much about simply didn’t exist, or were irrelevant. I was only an outsider in my own mind. Just like the duet I choreographed, in the end language mattered not where friendship bridged the gap.
Gillian Rhodes is from Colorado. She works in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as a choreographer at a major television network and as an executive assistant at an arts NGO. She has been living in Phnom Penh for more than a year. She eventually plans to start a dance company.