Writer Sorita Heng dives into the world of traditional Cambodian arts by finding out more about the popular Praying Mantis dance. Photography by Jim Huston.

The dancers grace the stage in a straight line, dressed in different shades of vibrant green. On their shirts are rectangles of bright yellow, arranged almost in the shape of a vest. Around their heads, they wear a headband with a strawberry-shaped face, coupled with two antennae.

In front of the audience at the capital’s National Museum’s performance hall stand 10 human praying mantes.

In each hand, the dancers hold a coconut shell. More of these shells are strapped to their elbows and knees. As the performance starts, the dancers can be seen embodying the long front legs of the insect while tapping their shells, tilting their heads swiftly forwards and back.

The crisp clacking sound of the coconuts joins the lively chorus of instruments – the cadence of the xylophone or roneat ek, the twang of the stringed takei, the pipe-like tune of the long cylindrical sralai, the rhythm of the hand drum and the sweet high-pitch of the stringed tro ou.

Interspersing this melody is the shouts and drawn out rolled ‘r’ of the males. A woman’s voice sings about the ways of the praying mantis soon followed.

Further into the dance, moves include cartwheels, forward rolls and backflips. This is interspersed with more inventive acrobatics, such as the “worm walk”, where men strap their legs to each other’s backs, the “standing praying mantis”, where women step onto men’s shoulders, and “the balance”, where one man lifts four other dancers locked around him to form one huge praying mantis.

The inclusion of such moves came from the dance’s origin.

According to Phal Saravout, a dance teacher at association Yu Vek Selapak, the dance was created by The Department of Performing Arts of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to give circus groups in the Cambodian art world a chance to perform on stage.

The dance is also inspired by elements of the Coconut Shell Dance, which is rooted in Svay Rieng province.

Phal explains the dance does not have a strict limit as to how many people perform. However, what is important is there must be pairs of men and women. Usually, the smallest number is three pairs, the average is five and the largest is 10.

“It’s one of the most popular folk dances,” says Phal. “In both sets of [Yu Vek Selapak] performances that we alternate for shows, we include the Praying Mantis Dance. The audience loves it.”

Rat Vantha, 23, a sophomore at the Royal University of Fine Arts, who performs the dance, finds it enjoyable, albeit difficult.

“The dance has a happy quality to it. Joyful. Comedic. There are also difficulties because it requires stepping onto one another. Lots of techniques,” he says.

Rat does not find the representation of the praying mantis too unusual as it is common for Cambodian dances to include elements of nature.

“Cambodian artists mostly get their inspiration from nature and animals, such as The Pailin Peacock Dance and The Butterfly Dance,” he says. “Sometimes we see the life of people, animals and plants [through the dance].”

Sou Senghong, 24, a senior at the National University of Management (NUM), was first frustrated by the choreography before he finally got the hang of it. “When I finished the dance for the first time while rehearsing, I felt so happy. Not just me, but everyone in the group,” he says.

Sou is responsible for lifting the other dancers in the balance move to form the huge praying mantis. “At first, when I tried, my hip hurt and I couldn’t lift [them]. I would lift and fall, lift and fall,” he recalls.

For dancers like these, the dance takes about half a month of practice to master.

Both Rat and Sou are part of Yu Vek Selapak, which performs from Monday to Saturday at the National Museum from 7pm. From October to March, they will run daily. The association began its partnership with Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) about three years ago.

Chhoun Sarin, CLA programme manager, said the shows provide dancers with a platform to showcase the authenticity of Cambodian traditional dances. Estimating that Cambodian audience makes up only around 10 percent at the shows, he wants to encourage more locals to view them.

“The art that we showcase here [the National Museum] is not only for foreigners,” he says. “It is the art of Cambodians, and the show is an opportunity for skilled artists to showcase their ability for us [Cambodians] to see.”

Through the shows, both Rat and Sou are able to make some money to support their studies.

However, as with many artists in Cambodia, wages are not high but enough to get by.

“For the artists, it’s nothing extraordinary other than determination, the love [of the art] and the fear of losing the tradition of our ancestors,” he adds.