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Dancing Away From TragedySophiline Cheam Shapiro (right) teaching Khmer Arts Ensemble dancer Pum Molyta at the Khmer Arts Theater in Takhmao, Cambodia. Photo by James Wasserman.

Dancing Away From Tragedy

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro '97 was among the first students to re-learn the classical dances of war-ravaged Cambodia. Now, she teaches the almost-lost art form and produces original choreography, which has been staged around the world.

By Angilee Shah
Contributing Writer

UCLA Magazine

Khmer Arts Ensemble dancers Mot Pharan (left) and Sao Phirom in Sophiline Cheam Shapiro's Shir Ha-Shirim. Photo by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro.

Khmer Arts Ensemble dancers Mot Pharan (left) and Sao Phirom in Sophiline Cheam Shapiro's Shir Ha-Shirim. Photo by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro.

After the terrible violence of Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, the joy of dance returned to war-ravaged Cambodia. Sophiline Cheam Shapiro '97 was among the first students to re-learn the country's classical dances. Now, this National Heritage Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts is teaching the almost-lost art form in the Long Beach studio of her Khmer Arts Academy.

Cheam Shapiro's students are often the children of refugees; she hopes her students find inspiration in the arts the same way she did as a young girl who survived a terrible tragedy. "You can either run [from the past] or come back and help," she says. "I chose dance."

Cheam Shapiro is from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and at 8 years old, in 1975, she was forced to leave the city and work in the fields. It was the time of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields of Cambodia. In four years, more than 1 million people — as many as 2.2 million by some estimates — were killed by the genocidal Communist regime. Among them were Cheam Shapiro's father and two brothers.

The Khmer Rouge saw Cambodian classical dance as a symbol of royal power, a backwards spectacle that went against the principles of a cultural revolution. But Cheam Shapiro saw it as resurrection of Cambodian cultural pride. When she returned to Phnom Penh with her mother in 1979, their house had been burnt to the ground. But her uncle, a well-known artist, had survived and begun the work of reviving classical art by creating an artists colony. He told Cheam Shapiro, then a teenager, that she could have a long career if she studied theater arts.

But she loved the slow and intricate movements, the representations of nature and life that infuse Cambodian dance. In 1988, she graduated from the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh (now the Royal University), part of the first class to master the now-rare art form after the Khmer Rouge was removed from power. She joined the university's faculty and performed her unique pieces around the world, including uniquely Cambodian adaptations of such English-language classics as Othello, and choreography that both built upon and challenged traditional forms.

In 1991, Cheam Shapiro moved to California with her husband. But she felt that she had lost her "sense of Cambodian-ness" and started practicing dance at home. She made her own practice costumes, and when she put them on she felt like she was maintaining her identity.

At UCLA, she graduated with a degree in dance ethnology. Since then, her choreography has been seen around the world. In 2002, she opened the Khmer Arts Academy with her husband, and more recently created the Khmer Arts Ensemble in Takhmao, outside of Phnom Penh. The 29-member troupe of dancers and musicians has performed Cheam Shapiro's original choreography in festivals and shows around the world.

"I came from Cambodia and I had nothing with me but dance," Cheam Shapiro explains. Thanks to her, people around the world have it, too.

UCLA International Institute