A young talent from a new-established settlement has emerged, captivating the online world with his mesmerising performances of the traditional Cambodian monkey dance.
Roeun Kakada is a five-year-old prodigy who has taken the social media sphere by storm with his exceptional dance skills and dedication to preserving the Kingdom’s rich cultural heritage.
Kakada’s enchanting dance routines have won the hearts of people from all walks of life, as his videos and photographs spread like wildfire across social media platforms. From his nimble movements to his infectious enthusiasm, viewers are left in awe of his talent and passion for the traditional arts.
“I’m happy! I study with teachers, Tong, Nam, and Bormey. I like monkey dancing the most because of the jump form. I like the name Asva,” Kakada said from backstage, as he prepared to deliver one of his signature performances.
Chhon Sreynet, first runner-up of Miss Universe Cambodia 2021, recently organised a charity event in Run Ta Ek, where she had the opportunity to witness Kakada’s remarkable skills first-hand. Impressed by his talent, Sreynet filmed and captured his performance, sharing it on her Facebook account for her followers to enjoy.
The impact of Kakada’s dance was further amplified when a photo of him, cleverly photoshopped with the traditional Hanuman dress, went viral on social media. The image quickly spread across various platforms, captivating viewers and generating widespread attention.
“Do you know the little monkey? I have met him in person, and he is absolutely adorable,” said Sreynet, as she expressed her admiration for the young performer.
The combination of Sreynet’s endorsement and the captivating photo has garnered even more recognition and appreciation for Kakada’s talent, further solidifying his position as a rising star in Cambodian traditional dance.
The movements in the Cambodian traditional Hanuman dance are dynamic, graceful, and highly stylised. The dancers employ a combination of intricate footwork, flowing gestures, and acrobatic elements to bring the character of Hanuman to life.
Hanuman is dressed in a white costume, which is designed to highlight the sparkling gold of the monkey’s hair.
The performers wear beautifully designed face masks, which clearly show the established form of the monkey king.
Born and raised in the Apsara area, and now relocated to Run Ta Ek in Siem Reap, Kakada’s journey in the world of classical arts began at the tender age of four when he started learning Khmer classical dance.
His mother, Yuk Sopheak, 37, made the conscious decision to rent a house near a training club to support her son’s artistic endeavours.
She believed that proximity to the art school was crucial, especially on late practice nights when traveling long distances would be challenging.
“I preferred to live further from state schools but closer to the performing arts school, because some days they practice late at night, and it is difficult to travel. Three of my children have immersed themselves in the arts, with two sons learning traditional dance and my daughter studying music,” she said.
Sopheak beams with pride as she witnesses her son’s deep love for classical art, as well as his impressive ability to remember intricate dance forms.
She appreciates that her three children spend their time immersed in the arts, rather than being consumed by idle activities or excessive use of their phones.
“I am more than happy; it’s hard to put into words. If my children choose to pursue careers in the arts, I will wholeheartedly support them,” she said.
“However, I often remind them never to forget the source that provided them with the foundational knowledge,” she added.
Kakada, known by his dance name “Asva”, has been studying Khmer classical dance since mid-2022 and has recently become enamoured with the monkey dance, particularly the jump form.
He spends his evenings from 5.00pm to 8.30pm, Monday to Saturday, training at the Khmer Angkor Training Art Club. On Sundays, he devotes the entire day to dance practice, enjoying meals at the home of Nam Tuonsokea, founder of the club.
Tuonsokea established the club in 2019. His passion for the traditional arts led him to invest his personal funds, and he accepts charitable donations from the public to bring his vision to life.
“The purpose of setting up this club was to engage children in the appreciation and preservation of Khmer culture,” he explained.
He said the club has faced challenges, with the number of teachers decreasing from over 20 to just six, and student enrolment dropping from 111 to 55.
“Although many teachers initially supported the club’s establishment, most of them later claimed to be too busy to participate,” he added.
“Now, there are only six dedicated teachers who continue to work for the love of Khmer art and culture,” he explained.
The decrease in student enrolment can be attributed to the club’s relocation, which coincided with the need for the students’ parents to move to a new area in Run Ta Ek.
Despite these obstacles, Tounsokea remains committed to his mission of preserving and passing on Khmer artistic traditions to future generations.
Although he lost his job due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, he continues to appeal to philanthropists near and far for support, as he believes in the importance of continuing the club’s work with children.
The 42-year-old founder also highlighted the significance of parental and guardian contributions, in addition to philanthropic funds.
“The students’ parents and guardians assist with rental expenses and electricity payments according to their means, forming a crucial part of the club’s financial stability,” he said.
He said the club’s performing troupe has been invited to numerous programs, including the Angkor Sangkran celebrations in the previous years. However, for 2023, they have not received any invitations, and the exact reason remains unknown.
The club enforces a strict enrolment policy, accepting only children who are currently studying in general education or English schools. Those who drop out of school to pursue art are not accepted, as the club prioritises a well-rounded education and a love for knowledge alongside artistic training.
Originally from Sotr Nikum district in Siem Reap, Tuonsokea, who became an orphan at a young age, has dedicated his efforts to raising funds for young people and impoverished children. While he has been advised to prioritise starting a family and focus less on the club, Tuonsokea remains committed to its mission.
He acknowledged that he doubts he could start a family while continuing to run the club.
“I have stopped considering the idea of marriage, and my ultimate dream is to establish an even better facility for the children,” he said. “In the future, even if I’m not around anymore, my hope is that someone will step forward to continue the work.”
He recognises Kakada as one of the youngest and most exceptional students of the club.
“Despite his age, Kakada demonstrates excellence in all aspects of Khmer classical art,” he said.
Two of Kakada’s siblings also participate in the training, but Tounsokea holds high hopes for Kakada’s future, believing that he may be able to support his family in the future.
“I told his mother from the start that Kakada could be a star, and that he has the potential to support her in the future,” he added.
Although initially hesitant, Kakada’s interest in classical dance was fostered and encouraged by his parents. Despite some initial setbacks and instances of wanting to quit, Kakada eventually approached Tounsokea personally, displaying a strong determination not to give up on his training.
According to Tounsokea, Kakada possesses impressive skills and is a relatively easy student to train. However, he pointed out that all of the children who practice at the club exhibit great potential and are capable of carrying on the traditions of their ancestors.
He also highlighted the positive outcomes resulting from the children’s participation, including reduced phone usage, adherence to rules, and increased reading habits.
He also praised the effects of Kakada’s viral performances.
“As his talent blossoms and his videos continue to capture the attention of millions, he serves as a shining example of the beauty and significance of Cambodian traditional arts, igniting a renewed interest in the country’s rich cultural heritage,” he explained.
Sopheak said she has observed how Tounsokea has dedicated himself to training children at the club.
“Initially, he had very little means to support himself. He even went to the extent of selling his motorbike to provide for the club, particularly ensuring that the children have enough food during their day-long training sessions,” she added.
Sopheak also mentioned that several parents have provided some assistance to Tounsokea, especially those who are well-off.
“Tounsokea does not pay himself a salary. He shares everything, including the expenses for the venue and utilities like water, electricity, and gas, as well as the salaries for teachers and the children’s meals,” she added.
Moun Sopheap, director of the Siem Reap provincial culture department, could not be reached for comment.