Prumsodun Ok: "I Am Dancing to Call the Souls Back, for Myself, for All Khmer People"

August 4, 2020

Imagine a clay pot lifted to the sky and dropped. It breaks and bursts, shattering into countless pieces every which way. This is my experience as the first American-born child in a family of Khmer refugees. My family survived Cambodia’s nightmarish genocide and a dangerous refugee camp, only to be fractured by different languages, educations and beliefs in inner-city Long Beach. Everything—from the books we read, the news we watched, the literature and movies we consumed—said that we were broken.

Khmer classical dance is the glue in my life. I have loved it since I was 4 years old, donning my sister’s red dress to imitate amateur dancers flashing from our living room television. Their costumes were cheap, their technique poor—but somehow the beauty, power and spirit of the dance still emerged. It was not until the age of 16 that I received proper instruction from my teacher, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, who immersed me in the immeasurable depths of this ancient art. Its extreme, deliciously dangerous curves conjuring awesome naga, its accompanying pin peat orchestra full and constant like the flow of a powerful, irresistible river—maybe the word “love” is not enough.

In Cambodia we believe that every person has 19 souls. We fall sick, are especially vulnerable to bad luck and danger when even one is lost. I am dancing to call the souls back, for myself, for all Khmer people, and for Cambodia. I dance as a vessel for my ancestors, for their hopes and dreams, for their strengths and visions. I dance for their fears and tears, too, for the painful and darker things we do not like but must understand. I dance with the love and knowledge sculpted into my body by my teacher—gifted, awakened, charged and enflamed by her—knowledge and love she got from her teachers and their teachers and their teachers and their teachers and so on for more than 1,000 years. I dance as testament to the resilience of this tradition and philosophy, and to the strength and will of humanity as a whole. I dance to right the wrongs of the past and present, to envision new futures.

If this world is broken, my dance and I will be the glue. We will bind and bond and heal: finding and connecting all the fragments, manifesting new realities altogether.