Psychological Healing From Cambodian Dance Arts

Women, children and the elderly all fell victim to the Khmer Rouge regime's brutal policies.
Women, children and the elderly all fell victim to the Khmer Rouge regime’s brutal policies.

Banteay Srey, CambodiaOne school near Angkor has discovered psychological healing from Cambodian dance arts. From 1975-1979 genocide swept the tiny Asian country of Cambodia like a firestorm. As the name implies, the “Khmer Rouge” perpetrators were of the same ethnic Khmer blood as their fellow citizens but communist fanaticism drove them to enslave their brothers and sisters. In four short years they killed nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, overwork and murder.

The Khmer Rouge aggressively targeted and systematically exterminated educated people, particularly those who practiced age-old traditions. An estimated 90% of the country’s dancers, musicians, artists and teachers died, leaving a cultural and spiritual vacuum in the hearts of the people. In 1979, a Vietnamese invasion wrested control from the Khmer Rouge in most of the country, but many guerillas retreated to the jungles and mountains of the north, where they dug in.

The remote Angkor region, former home to the Khmer civilization that flourished during the 8th to the 12 centuries, became a Khmer Rouge stronghold. Two decades passed. It wasn’t until 1995 that Siem Reap province was completely liberated, but by then an entire generation of people there had known only privation, fear and brutality.

A Daughter Returns to a Tortured Homeland

After Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, King Sihanouk directed cartographer Nginn Karet to organize the Service Géographique Khmer, transferring national mapping responsibilities from the French government in Saigon to Cambodia. Through Karet’s work, Cambodia later proved ownership of the disputed border temple of Preah Vihear for the Cambodian people. Karet passed away in 1965 but left his Swiss wife and children with a profound love and respect for their shared country.

In 1994, after more than two decades of European exile, his daughter Ravynn Karet-Coxen committed herself to begin rebuilding her broken country. The family maintained many political contacts in Cambodia, including General Toan Chhay, a resistance leader who doggedly fought the communists throughout their occupation. Ravynn went to him to ask where she should begin? Where had people suffered the longest? Who had the greatest needs?

The general was quick to reply: the Banteay Srey district of Siem Reap Province had 2,500 rural families living in subhuman conditions. There were 14 villages with nearly 20,000 people trying to survive. He quickly advised Ravynn to begin elsewhere. Without realizing the extent of the crisis, Ravynn formed the Nginn-Karet Foundation (www.NKFC.org) and committed herself to begin helping the seven worst villages in the district.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Ravynn in a telephone interview. “But nothing could have prepared me for what I found. When we first went to the villages I was speechless. Housing, sanitation, education and health services were almost non-existent.

“These people lived in abject poverty, barely surviving from day to day. It is shocking to say but some were living like animals. There was no clean water or hygiene. Children ran wild without supervision, care, education or direction. The primary occupation was scavenging forest wood to sell for a daily bowl of rice. They ate whatever insects or animals they could catch for protein.

“But these were just physical symptoms. What frightened me most was seeing the psychological devastation. There was no eye contact. There was no laughter. There was no emotion. Just numbness. These families had no hope, no future and no concept of bettering their living conditions or livelihoods.

“It tore my heart apart. Many times I wept and didn’t know if I could continue. This is why I named the foundation for my father. With my respect for his memory and his name I knew I would never quit. Never.”

Psychological healing from Cambodian Dance arts: Ravynn Karet-Coxen (center) at a village hygiene class.
Psychological healing from Cambodian Dance arts: Ravynn Karet-Coxen (center) at a village hygiene class.

Ravynn’s struggle continued. During the first years progress was slow and building relationships was next to impossible. Successes were few and far between. She agonized over whether her group could even accomplish the seemingly simple goals they had set. These people had never experienced empathy or compassion before and lethargy abounded.

“The few who spoke to me said that during the years of the Khmer Rouge each breath was a breath of fear. The Communist leaders were paranoid and capricious. They never hesitated to incarcerate, beat, torture or even execute a villager for the slighted infraction — actual or imagined. Neighbors spied on neighbors. I saw scars on their minds and bodies.

“We worked for years building schools, wells and latrines. We helped villagers improve their houses and taught them cleanliness. But the question I kept asking myself was what could restore these broken human spirits? All these material things didn’t seem to be working as well as they should.”

National Geographic’s recreation of Angkor Wat temple in 1,150 AD.

NKFC school has discovered psychological healing from Cambodian dance arts

In ancient times, the Angkor area was known as “The Land of Gold” and Cambodia was known throughout the region for its wealth. Rich forests and plains yielded far more fruit, rice, vegetables, fish and animals than the people could use. The Khmers exported their natural bounty to China and other neighbors. Yet today modern visitors find Cambodia a wasteland filled with starving, uneducated, impoverished people. What happened?

“I was baffled to see my country, where 80% of the population was involved in agriculture, suddenly forget how to grow even the most basic crops,” said Ravynn. “For generations, my people lived simple but comfortable lives of abundance in the forests. But now they have forgotten how to plant for the seasons, to make organic compost, to harvest and preserve vegetables, and so much more. In previous generations Cambodian mothers prided themselves in maintaining tidy homes, now I saw them living in squalor with children who no longer knew how to even brush their teeth. My heart ached.

“We spent years rebuilding the most basic village systems: providing clean water, sanitation, housing. Gradually villagers began, once again, to learn personal hygiene, farming skills, child care skills. People became more self sufficient, began taking charge of their futures and started to practice healthier lifestyles. But something was still missing.

“Then, two years ago, something wonderful happened. Some older villagers approached me to ask for our help opening a small school to teach traditional Cambodian dance. Here I pause to explain how powerful, important and sacred the dance tradition is to the culture of my country.

“For Khmer people, traditional dance and music are passions that flow in our veins. In Cambodia, dance is much more than entertainment or even art: dance is our way to speak to our gods and to thank them for the gifts of this rich land that we inhabit.

“The discipline, power and purity of Cambodian dance embraces all our religious and cultural values, values that have been passed down to us since the time of Angkor. Our dance not only teaches our most ancient legends and Buddhist values, these ancient rituals purify the soul and make Cambodian people one with our land. Cambodian dance gives inner peace.”

Psychological Healing From Cambodian Dance Arts: Children at NKFC study Cambodian classical and folk dance, as well as music.
Psychological Healing From Cambodian Dance Arts: Children at NKFC study Cambodian classical and folk dance, as well as music.

New Blessings for the Khmer People

With the formation of NKFC’s dance school everything suddenly began to change. Parents remarked to foundation workers that children attending the new classes gained confidence, energy and strength. The revival of the traditional Khmer arts of music and dance drew families closer together, inspiring emotions and vitality unseen for decades. The power that permeates the land of the Khmers seemed to return to the area through the children, and everyone is experiencing psychological healing from Cambodian dance arts.

According to Ravynn:

“We accidentally rediscovered the missing key, a timeless language of nature that flows in our veins. These simple arts began unshackling broken people from painful pasts, these gentle rhythms were a balm that brought love to their numbness. The children stood with confidence and walked proudly. Parents re-embraced traditional Cambodian family values in their hearts and minds.

“I realized that our earlier efforts had gone to improving physical things — homes, crops, water supply — but even then, the eyes were still empty. But now, through the wellspring of Khmer traditions, we are reviving ancient strengths and sacred arts that heal villagers and their children from the inside. For the first time, I clearly see that we are truly nourishing the souls of our people.”

The skill of the dance and music school students has progressed beyond everyone’s expectations. The modest facilities, open air thatched roof pavilions with three full time teachers, accepted new students as donations allowed.

Psychological Healing From Cambodian Dance Arts: NKFC students practice 6 days per week, in open air pavilions and no electricity. Music is provided by cassette players powered by car batteries.
Psychological Healing From Cambodian Dance Arts: NKFC students practice 6 days per week, in open air pavilions and no electricity. Music is provided by cassette players powered by car batteries.

In 2006, Ravynn met with Her Royal Highness Princess Buppha Devi to present the idea of a rural dance and music school. The Princess, already familiar with Ravynn’s record of success with village improvements offer to become the school’s official patron. Ravynn organized the school but waited more than two years before formally accepting the royal acknowledgment.

In 2009, the students performed for King Sihamoni at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, an incredibly rare honor for any dance performance in Cambodia. Following that performance, Ravynn officially named the school the  “NKFC Conservatoire – Preah Ream Buppha Devi Chhouk Sar – Banteay Srey.”

NKFC students dance for His Majesty King Sihamoni at the Royal Palace.
H.M. King Sihamoni recognized every dancer with a personal greeting as Ravynn Karet-Coxen witnessed the blessings.

In 2010, the school has accepted 163 students to train. Children and their families pay nothing to attend so the opportunity is based on finding personal sponsors for each child. The cost is less than $5 per week per student, but even that amount is beyond the ability of the local families.

Sponsoring a young dancer or musician is easy,  quick and rewarding. You truly have the opportunity to participate in the spiritual and cultural reawakening of a deserving land.

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