Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Sophiline Shapiro - The Dancer
DancersSophiline Cheam Shapiro tells FRONTLINE/World how classical dance helped her understand and communicate her experience under the Khmer Rouge. This interview has been edited for clarity.

You were 8 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh and took power in Cambodia. Did you understand what was happening at the time?

I knew that something scary and dangerous and confused was coming. But I didn't really know much. You know, the moment I left my home and on my way to the countryside, it was like, wow, it was hard because I was pushing a cart full of our possessions across a bridge, uphill and downhill. It was hard, but there was at least some sense of excitement -- you know, you get out of your home, you get to go to somewhere.

But then things become difficult and scary when you see the Khmer Rouge truck drive through the crowd with guns, and things like that, and screaming and yelling at people about moving faster. That was really scary.

Under the Khmer Rouge you and other children were taught songs. What do you remember about these songs?

Well, these songs gave me, as a child, a delusion ... about having a prosperous Cambodia. And even though I was walking to work or from work with an empty stomach and crying and hungry, I was singing that song. And the reason I sang that song is that I couldn't sing any other. That's the only song I was allowed to sing ... . Any other song, including traditional and pop songs from before 1975, was not allowed.

And so this was a moment that we were forced to forget the past. To disassociate ourselves from the past, from history. It was only about this new history, about everyday survival ...

Singing a song was something that gave me some kind of spiritual energy to keep going ...

After the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, how did classical dance help you to address the trauma of what you and others had experienced during their rule?

Every time I think about the tragic (events) that happened to me, to my family and to my people during the Khmer Rouge, I have to think also about something that is beautiful about my culture and about my country. And one thing that is beautiful is the dance and music.

You became a classical dance apprentice when you were 14. Can you describe the classical dance you studied?

Technically and asthetically, Cambodian dance has very slow and stylized movements that use hand gestures to communicate and to translate the lyrics to the audience ...

It functions as a medium that connects Earth to heaven.

Very intricate hand gestures express belief -- when you put your hand flat or all your four fingers together and then you tuck your thumb to the front and that is belief. If you put your finger into a point, a pointing gesture, that represents a tree, and when the tree grows up, it has leaves. And then if you put your thumb and your index finger together and then spread the other three finger apart, that is the flower. So the tree has the flower. And then, fruit: When you put your thumb and the middle finger and form a circle and then you put the three other finger backward, the tree has fruit. And when the fruit get ripe it drops, and when it drops the seed just falls into the ground and grows up as a tree again. So these are just the four basic hand gestures that embody the meaning of the circle of nature, the circle of life. And that's the theme that classical dance usually focuses on.

Old photo of dancersTell me about the costume you wear when performing classical Cambodian dance.

The costume that we wear is very elaborate. It's decorated with sequins and beads and arranged in a very unique pattern to Cambodia. We use silk skirts which have very beautiful patterns, and we also wear headressess ... we wear (costumes) and gold-painted jewelry to transform the dancer into the divine being ... .

This is how we connect the earth and heaven, by transforming the dancer into the divine being, and the divine being descends from heaven to bless the earth with peace and prosperity.

In 1990, you did Samritechak ("dark prince"), your Cambodian classical dance adaptation of Othello. Can you comment on the metaphors and symbolism you use to allude to the Khmer Rouge in your dance performance of Samritechak?

Well, I felt very upset or angry that nowadays no one among the Khmer Rouge leadership admits that they did anything to Cambodia. They never take any responsibility. And so I made Othello take responsibility ... . Of course, it's too late, but at least he express guilt and takes responsibility for his actions, for the fact that he killed an innocent wife. He is guilty.

What was the audience's reaction to seeing your version of Othello for the first time?

The audience was very supportive ... many of them said they were impressed that I produced some new work that brought the two cultures together ... but some of the audience was kind of confused. They didn't really get the story line.

When you're onstage, performing classical Cambodian dance, what thoughts go through your mind?

Classical dance is like a moving meditation. When I dance, I usually focus on ... generating feelings of compassion and meditation. I do forget about things around me. ... I feel very calm, very giving and very detached. I'm not desiring to go anywhere, to get anything ... I feel compassion and calm, and emptiness. But emptiness, in this case, is also to feel full, complete.

Back to Sophiline Shapiro introduction

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Photos courtesy of Michael Burr and James Wasserman