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  • The Serpent's Tail: A Brief History of Khmer Classical Dance by Prumsodun Ok
  • Margaret Coldiron
THE SERPENT'S TAIL: A BRIEF HISTORY OF KHMER CLASSICAL DANCE. By Prumsodun Ok. Self-published, 2018. 294 pages including appendices, footnotes and glossary. Available as a free download from and as a regularly updated website:

For teachers and students of Asian performance traditions, The Serpent's Tale is an extremely useful and informative website focused entirely upon the often-neglected history and development of Khmer classical dance. It is extremely detailed and has wonderful illustrations ranging [End Page 606] from reliefs from the temples of Angkor to contemporary performance videos. The author, Prumsodun Ok, is a Cambodian-American dancer and choreographer specializing in Khmer classical dance; the website demonstrates the depth of his understanding as a practitioner and student of Khmer art, performance, and history. The preface explains that the website

… draws upon personal experience and academic sources, anecdotes from my teacher and family, photographs and videos, and news articles and personal analysis. I use mythology and literature, oral and embodied storytelling, visual and performative art, social psychology and linguistics to illuminate my artistic heritage as I see it.

(p. 6)

Prumsodun Ok also discusses the history and development of Khmer classical dance and its relationship to Thai dance traditions, which has long been a source of contention. This is a continuous theme throughout, and Ok presents cogent responses to established scholars of Southeast Asian performance like James Brandon and Jukka Meittinin whose publications have supported the Thai view that contemporary Khmer dance copies Thai traditions, whereas, as Ok successfully argues, the case is rather the opposite. In an appendix he deals specifically with the erasure of Khmer voices in mainstream scholarship on Cambodian dance and its relationship to Thai traditions. This partisan history provides an important counter to available materials on the history of Khmer performance. Many elements of this "history" will be disputed by scholars, nonetheless, it is a very useful addition to the limited materials available in English on Khmer dance traditions.

The website is easy to navigate, with a clear table of contents and list of illustrations at the start. Chapters are arranged in chronological fashion beginning with the "Sacred Roots" of Khmer dance, moving through the post-Angkor periods of Thai domination, the re-assertion of Khmer culture in the nineteenth century, the difficult period of French colonialism and Japanese occupation, the re-assertion of Khmer independence under King Sihanouk, followed by the terrors of the Khmer Rouge period to the re-emergence of Khmer traditional dance in the late twentieth century. The final chapters look at the state of Khmer classical dance today, the rituals associated with it, and Ok's own, sometimes controversial, work that brings together traditional Khmer techniques with contemporary dance in pieces that reflect the choreographer's social and political concerns.

The first chapter, devoted to "The Origins of Khmer Dance," elaborates on the title of the site by explaining the significance of the [End Page 607] serpent (naga) in Khmer myth, history, and cosmology and its relationship to sacred dance traditions. There is evidence of dancers depicted on the very earliest archaeological objects and in writing since the sixth century CE, which makes it clear that dancers had an important function in Hindu, Buddhist, and animist ritual and were highly regarded temple servants. The website presents scholarship by Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan who wrote of events observed in Angkor in 1296, and Ok makes use of Angkorean bas-reliefs to support the view that Hindu and Buddhist dance dramas were regular features of early Khmer performance (p. 10). Using photographs of the friezes at Banteay Samre, Angkor Thom, Bayon, and other temples, the website provides an insightful analysis of the physical positions of the figures and notes their relationship to contemporary classical Khmer dance (pp. 11–12). He also makes some interesting connections to Tantric conceptions of the relationship between body and spirit and Tantric ritual connections to Khmer classical dances that are still performed today (pp. 14–17).

He cements this idea in the following chapter with an in-depth analysis of "Two Rain...


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