Royal ballet of Cambodia

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2003)

Country(ies): Cambodia



Royal ballet of Cambodia

Renowned for its graceful hand gestures and stunning costumes, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, also known as Khmer Classical Dance, has been closely associated with the Khmer court for over one thousand years. Performances would traditionally accompany royal ceremonies and observances such as coronations, marriages, funerals or Khmer holidays. This art form, which narrowly escaped annihilation in the 1970s, is cherished by many Cambodians.

Infused with a sacred and symbolic role, the dance embodies the traditional values of refinement, respect and spirituality. Its repertory perpetuates the legends associated with the origins of the Khmer people. Consequently, Cambodians have long esteemed this tradition as the emblem of Khmer culture. Four distinct character types exist in the classical repertory: Neang the woman, Neayrong the man, Yeak the giant, and Sva the monkey. Each possesses distinctive colours, costumes, makeup and masks.The gestures and poses, mastered by the dancers only after years of intensive training, evoke the gamut of human emotions, from fear and rage to love and joy. An orchestra accompanies the dance, and a female chorus provides a running commentary on the plot, highlighting the emotions mimed by the dancers, who were considered the kings’ messengers to the gods and to the ancestors.

The Royal Ballet practically ceased to exist under the repressive rule of the Khmer Rouge, who eliminated almost all master dancers and musicians. Immediately after Pol Pot’s defeat in 1979, dance troupes re-emerged and performances of the ancient repertory resumed. The ballet has regained much of its former splendour but still faces numerous difficulties, such as a lack of funding and suitable performance spaces, competition from modern media and the risk of becoming a mere tourist attraction.



These videos (and many more) can also be consulted through the UNESCO Archives Multimedia website

Safeguarding project (11-2005/12-2008)

Danseuses effectuant des mouvements de main caractéristiques

Graceful hand gestures, elaborate choreography and stunning costumes distinguish the Khmer classical dance. This project has been designed to ensure the safeguarding of the Khmer Royal Ballet and to support the preservation and promotion of this cultural expression.

The project seeks to provide sustainable foundations for the transmission of skills to the younger generations and to promote awareness of the value of – as well as of the importance to safeguard - this intangible cultural heritage among the Cambodian community. Therefore, the action plan focuses on several priorities including the capacity building for Cambodian staff in the field of research and project management, documentation of knowledge and skills from old masters to prevent its loss, improvement of professionals’ expertise and facilities, advance training workshops for dancers, training of teachers, increasing public awareness through performances.

The project activities include four components:

  • Research and documentation;
  • Development of education programme for both professionals and amateurs;
  • Support for the development of the national troupe;
  • Facilitation of public access to Royal Ballet performances.