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Lion dancers of Cambodia stick to their art during pandemic

Lion dance heads are displayed at a temple ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 21, 2022. REUTERS/Cindy Liu

Gnuon Virak, a Cambodian dragon and lion dancer, gathers his group in a circle before letting out a team shout and getting to work rehearsing for their sole Lunar New Year performance of the pandemic-stricken year.

The news: Gnuon, 28, has been dancing since he was a toddler and grew up near a Chinese-style temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

Ny Phanith, 24, stands before rehearsing for a lion dance performance ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations at a temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 21, 2022. REUTERS/Cindy Liu
  • He sought a master to teach him to dance seven years ago, and he joined the Bodhi Tree Troupe.
  • He eventually rose to the position of team leader.
  • The transportation company employee used to supplement his regular monthly salary of about $300 by doing lion and dragon dances at local events, earning about $20.
  • During the pandemic, this has all but dried up, with the number of performances dropping to around one per month instead of five.
Lion dancers perform ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations at Aeon Mall Sen Sok in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 30, 2022. REUTERS/Cindy Liu

What’s going on: According to the Cambodian Chinese Association, there are roughly eight troupes in Phnom Penh, but Gnuon is concerned that this number may decrease.

The backstory: Sino-Khmer people have long been a part of Cambodian culture. According to historical records, the first Chinese arrived in the area in the 13th century.

  • The neighbourhood was devastated during the Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s, when the authorities retaliated against well-educated urban merchants.
  • However, as China rapidly ramps up investment in Cambodia’s economy, ancestral links to China have brought riches to Sino-Khmers in recent years.

What Gnuon says: Gnuon intends to create some new forms to bring lion and dragon dancing to the forefront, such as increasing the number of dancers on elevated poles or using larger poles.

  • “I want the younger generation to hold on to this tradition and make it even more well-known in the future,” he said.
  • “We’ll keep all our current techniques and also create some new styles in order to make the dancing more well-known, or to be able to compete with other troupes,” he said.
Lion dancers prepare for performances ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations at a temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Cindy Liu
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