It’s dusk at the Olympic Stadium, and it feels like a festival. Vendors have set up stalls selling snack foods, beverages, trinkets. People in sweat clothes swarm. Cliche club dance music beats out of stereosystems and, lined up along the cement ring of the stadium’s top tier, little old ladies dance.
It’s called Aerobic Dancing, and it’s about the goddamn most endearing thing I’ve ever seen.
I saw it my first night in Phnom Penh, along the riverside. A few sets of stereospeakers had been set up, and young men were leading groups in dance moves. I thought it was something for tourists, some sort of street performance. I looked for baskets of money and didn’t see any. Then I scanned the expressions of the dancers’ faces, and they were all totally in earnest, concentrated of getting the moves right. Now this, I thought, is something different.
It was recommended to me later that I go to the city’s Olympic Stadium at dawn (um, no) or dusk (um, yes!) to see some real aerobic dancing. Well, you didn’t have to tell me twice.
It’s bustling leading up the steep slope of the stadium’s entrance. People swing their arms and legs, warming up. Children run around. I get to the top, and it’s a buzzing beehive of fitness. People run the stairs. Down at the bottom, a crew of joggers circle the dirt track. But the overwhelming majority of people at the stadium are late-middle-aged women. And they are there to dance.
Now, I’m quite familiar with old ladies doing Tai Chi in the parks at dawn. And I’m even used to random young Western dude who thanks to Ghost Dog has aspirations of becoming an urban samurai and practices along. But this is something entirely different.
About a dozen different stations are set up along the stadium’s ring, where a cool dusk breeze passes. Their music and moves are all slight variations of each other: twists and kicks and stretches and arm raises, a little fancy footwork from time to time. The people in the front rows sweat, focus intently. Most of the others vaguely step along, moving this way and that, sometimes getting the moves right, sometimes not. It doesn’t really seem to be about that.
The leaders of all of these groups are young men, teenagers in some cases. Hair swept across the face, pink shirts, dedazzled jean pockets: they are boys that by American standards would be categorically, 100% flaming gay. But they’re doing their thing here. And a crew of older ladies are doing it with them.
I sit and watch for awhile: the various sets of raised arms, the shakes and twists, the echoes of club music. Before the Khmer Rouge, dance was one of the most important art forms in the culture. Most of the country’s dancers, along with other artists, were killed.
Well, this might not be a revival of a lost traditional art form, but it might be an evolution of that. It might be a new manifestation of a cultural predisposition to dance. Or it could just be exercise, set to a melting sky and sweet as fucking hell.