When Lanica Angpak started the organization Cambodian American Girls Empowering three years ago as a personal project, she visualized it as a safe space where young Cambodian women could talk about "taboo" topics they didn't feel comfortable discussing with their families. But when Angpak broached that idea with the women she was mentoring at the time, the group had an addendum: They wanted Angpak to teach them traditional Cambodian dance.
"I was already teaching some of them," said Angpak, who learned how to dance from her mother. "But bringing it into this organization allowed us to build bridges through dance."
On a recent Sunday, the organization gathered at Bok Bar, a popular rooftop bar in South Philly with gorgeous views of the Philadelphia skyline, for a sunny afternoon workshop performance.
The women slipped off their shoes and completed stretches that were harder than your average yoga pose. Eventually, they shifted into formation and performed a dance about a Cambodian celebration for young children. The dancers moved slowly, but their movements required just as much precision as ballet. Their mastery of balance was impressive, as was their flexibility as they bent their wrists and ankles for various poses.
Curious Philadelphians can see the dancers in another workshop performance and learn a few moves themselves next month at the same venue.
Cambodian dance is a crucial part of storytelling in the country's culture. It has existed for thousands of years and draws its roots from Indian mythology and religion. Every component of the dancer's body is engaged during a performance, from their fingertips to their facial expressions. The style of dance has evolved throughout the years, and Angpak said a recent development has been new choreography inspired by the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s.
In a city filled with avant-garde dance studios and prominent ballet companies, grassroots organizations such as Angpak's often fly under the radar. The Philly area has the fourth largest Cambodian population in the United States — about 13,000, according to the most recent census — centered in South Philly. Angpak works closely with the Cambodian Association to help support the community here. Besides the performances, CAGE also holds dance workshops for females as young as 6 and as old as 72.
"On average, we do about 14 performances a year, and we've already surpassed that number this year," Angpak said. "We prioritize public events, especially from communities of color." The group particularly enjoys performing for organizations representing other communities of color.
Angpak said dance is an alternative way of sharing between communities, an exchange of culture and art, of sorts. The organization charges on a sliding scale for performances. Workshops, including the one at Bok Bar next month, are free and open to the public.
"We understand that many of the organizations we work with are on the smaller end," she said. "We do our part and they do theirs."
Angpak's parents fled to the United States as refugees in the early 1980s, and her mother made sure to pass on traditional Cambodian dance to her daughter because the genocide had nearly wiped out everyone who knew this art form. Even though Angpak grew up in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, she became very familiar with the Cambodian American community in South Philly because her mother was a social worker in the area. Years later, Angpak works to pass on what she's learned from her mother.
"I remember going to Lanica's mom's workplace and seeing them dance," said Danyca Lok, Angpak's 16-year-old godsister, who has been dancing for 11 years. "My mom used to bend my fingers when I was young to make sure they were flexible enough for me to dance. It's a legacy that plays a very important part of my identity."
The mission of the organization caught the attention of Morgan Jezierski, Bok's bar manager. Jezierski said she first got to know CAGE when it moved into an office on the second floor of the Bok building. Since then, she has looked for opportunities to introduce what it does to more people in South Philly.
"I thought it would be so fun to give them a chance to highlight Cambodian culture on our family days," she said. (The bar holds family days every Sunday.) "It gives the kids something to do while parents drink and catch up."
Sokorn Touch brought his 3-year-old daughter, Nisai, to the event on Sunday to foster her love of dancing. Nisai skipped around the bar area in a pink leotard and a matching sampot, a rectangular cloth worn as a skirt.
"She actually knows a lot about Cambodian dance already," said her father, a Cambodian American activist with the 1Love Movement, an organization that fights the deportations of Cambodians in Philadelphia. "But we thought that now maybe it was time for her to start learning."
Although Nisai seemed more interested in crawling under tables during the hour-long workshop, many other onlookers paid attention to the unconventional dance class unfolding before their eyes. "There aren't a lot of opportunities for people to be exposed to Cambodian culture and it doesn't always resonate with Westerners," Angpak said. "But it allows people an inner look at our community."