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Linda Sou: I think it was even a struggle for my dad to then be like, “We’re– no, we’re a dance troupe. We teach dance.” I’m like, “Yeah, but those are people. There’s a whole human being that’s coming to dance. You can’t compartmentalize the fact that they may be coming from a home that’s not supportive and that they were sneaking out to come to dance.”
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Linda Sou. She is a dancer and a volunteer for the Angkor Dance Troupe. Welcome to our program.
Linda Sou: Thank you so much for having me.
Anita Walker: Well, you know the Mass Cultural Council is a huge fan of the Angkor Dance Troupe. Talk a little bit about how it got started in Lowell and what difference it’s making in the lives of the people there.
Linda Sou: Well, the dance troupe is also a major fan of the Cultural Council, as I have been such– it’s been such an honor for me to be able to work alongside my father, who actually is the co-founder of the dance troupe. So some may say this was not a choice. It was a trade that was by force. But Lowell has the second largest Cambodian population in the United States. Some may say now even creeping up on the first largest. And my dad saw a gap in the community. We resettled here with no ability to speak English, really limited resources. And, while many were in the refugee camps, dance and song was really what got them through each day, and they convened around that, taught one another what they knew. It was during the Khmer Rouge genocide 90 percent of master teachers and artists and musicians or intellectuals were targeted and executed. And so, what was left were people who had some knowledge or from memory were teaching one another. And so, when they left the refugee camps and came to America, one of the first things they tried to do were find pockets of Khmer people to come together and continue the training. Fortunately enough for within our family, my great grandmother was a master teacher in the royal palace for the royal family. So my dad started classically training and learning and, when he resettled in Lowell, one of the first things he did was to try to find people who were in the same refugee camp as him and start a dance troupe. And so, fortunately, we were in a city, in Lowell, that was very welcoming and trying to be as supportive as possible. So other non-profits, churches, community organizations gave us space to practice and really kind of thrive. So, over the last 30 years– we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. And so, for me, I was there. From day one, I was three years old, training, learning how to dance, and have watched the organization go through many different phases. And the fact that it’s still at its core a place where families can still connect to what it means to be Khmer and give their children an opportunity, and themselves, to really learn about the beautiful stories that are about Khmer people.
Anita Walker: When I listen to you tell that whole history, which is such an amazing story that you’ve shared with us, it really brings home the point that these arts, these cultural traditions, are not really separate from us. They really are part and parcel of who we are. And, when you come to a country and you’ve lost everything, it’s the one thing that you want to hold onto. Isn’t that right?
Linda Sou: Yeah, and it’s– that is so true and that it’s easy. It’s kind of easy for people to gather around the music, the sound, the feeling it gives people. When they’re sitting in the audience and watching their American-born children performing sacred dances from their country that they never had a chance to do or even learn themselves. So imagine, even for some of the family, my family that lives back in Cambodia, the first time they got to see classical Cambodian dance was when we went back and my sister and I were able to perform with the Royal University’s dance troupe for them for the first time…
Anita Walker: Because it was wiped out.
Linda Sou: It was wiped out. It was not meant– in its original creation, it really was mainly for the royal family. And so, it was not until after the genocide that people– that’s why it was so hard, because it was so isolated in regards to only allowing the upper class, really, to enjoy the art form. That’s why even more for the common folk, the people from the country, to really take ownership over what it is that represents or resembles their culture. And so, being here, it’s like not only is it about preservation and getting the next generation to be connected more closely to who their family are, where they come for, but even from the people who experienced the genocide and were born in Cambodia, giving them that chance to experience it.
Anita Walker: What’s it like as we move a generation away from the earliest refugees who came into Massachusetts and were still really desperately trying to hold on to their culture? Now, like it or not, you just become more and more Americanized. Is it more difficult to get young people interested in participating?
Linda Sou: I think that there’s two different challenges. One is that we have to battle with Pop Warner and cheerleading and gymnastics. And so, getting ourselves acclimated to that, this is another activity that families should be considering when they have an array to choose from. That this is just as beneficial for their child to learn about traditional Cambodian dance as it is to be on a soccer team. But then, on the other hand, is that, with that, there was a gap in regards to understanding the importance of dance and culture, because there’s a generation that just didn’t experience it. That we continue, after 30 years, to educate the community about what was almost lost to why it’s important that we’re preserving this and the value of the dance troupe and why we’re here. And that the kids themselves– I feel like ones that are trying to find who they are will seek out dance, will seek out the dance troupe and see, “Oh, I want to be able to wear that costume. I want to know more about what that is.” But it’s still a lot of education, creating awareness, not just about connecting with the kids themselves but the families still not truly understanding what almost was lost. Like that, once something is there, people take it for granted and they’re just like, “Yeah, the dance troupe is here. It’s great. It’s beautiful. They do a great job all the time,” and that there’s a lot of work that goes in behind getting the dance troupe onstage. And so, I think that it’s not the disconnect with the kids so much because they know us. They were born and the dance troupe was there. So it’s not like– they don’t know life without the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell because it’s in their school. We do residencies. We perform every year at their assemblies. So they don’t know life without it but the parents may not understand that there was one time where we…
Anita Walker: It wasn’t there at all.
Linda Sou: There– yeah.
Anita Walker: So it’s interesting because, not only does the dance troupe contribute so much to the young people who participate, finding their identity, learning about traditions that date back, long before they came to America. But isn’t it also an amazing bridge to the non-Cambodian community involved.
Linda Sou: Yeah. It allows a space for connection around art. So you have the performing artist community, that there are practices and ways of life that artists can connect to. So, when we try to make connections around ballet and Cambodian classical ballet, and that there’s these intersections of people like, “Oh, my god, yes. We train just as hard and it’s just as painful.” And then others it’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting how the movements are opposite of how we’re learning how to train in dance in American Ballet.” And then, with the community, the at-large community, the general public that comes to see our show, it gives them a glimmer of the stories that come behind what Khmer people are about and the country. So you have our classical dances, which are more very much mythical stories that are– I always equate it to Greek mythology. So these tall tales that really are about the spiritual components of what Khmer people believe in. And then you have our folk dance which is like vibrant and lively and really telling the stories of the country people and how Khmer people live, how they fish, how they eat, what they utilize in daily life. So you have the opportunity for the general public, even though they don’t speak Khmer and they can’t understand the lyrics, but they can read what’s going on onstage. They can see that there’s a love story happening. Or they’re wearing blue and they have fishing baskets so they must be by the water fishing. And so, it does. It’s really fun and I think that, as the more we are able to continue to provide those basis for the general public to interact with us, the more they understand the story of the people and that it’s not that dissimilar. When we do programing and we have the kids go home and ask their families about folk tales from back in the days and, like “If you ask your grandparents to tell the story,” there’s always lessons in their stories. And, when we trans– when the kids take the stories and they translate them, they’re like, “Oh, yeah.” I mean, I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, always be good and be nice to others because, if you want to be treated that way,” and that there’s these same lessons just in a different language.
Anita Walker: The other thing I think that is such a wonderful outcome of what you’re doing with the Angkor Dance Troupe is it has really become a point of pride for the entire community, not just the Cambodian community. I mean, people of Lowell are really proud to have this amazing art form they are in that’s become part of the broader traditions of the community, not just the Cambodian traditions.
Linda Sou: Yeah, I mean, you think about the long-lasting impact that it’s having representing the city, representing performing arts, that, yes, it is about preservation of Khmer dance but that, because we’ve been there and we have become integrated into being part of the city’s soul, that you can’t almost talk about Lowell without thinking about the cultural communities there. And, when we say cultural communities, everybody knows we’re talking about– at least most of the time, we’re talking about the Khmer community because it makes up a third of the population. And, to see that the community’s thriving in various different aspects, maybe dance, maybe business or just the young professionals growing up and now vested in ensuring that the city continues to thrive, we all have played a role And, fortunately enough, the dance troupe has been there since the community’s settlement.
Anita Walker: One the things that I wanted to talk a little bit about as well is you are also part of our cohort of creative youth development programs which goes above and beyond the artistic rigor and the preservation of an art form. It’s really about transforming the lives of young people. Can you share a couple of stories about that?
Linda Sou: Well, listening to one of the success stories. I mean, the dance troupe, in its prime kind of time, in regards to really providing that safe space for young people, that was my generation. I was the one that got to benefit from extended afterschool programs that allowed me and my friends who didn’t look like other people in class to come and share space where we could kind of talk about our struggles of being bicultural and what does that mean to be one– I’m American. I was born here but, yes, you are American but your family is Khmer and you eat different food than your friends do and you wear different clothing when you go to a temple. And so, for our generation, being able to have the support of funding like the youth development programing, Youth Reach, and providing that space, providing transportation for young people from schools to get to the space that we were rehearsing in, providing enrichment opportunities to connect to things like thinking about college and thinking about career paths, that we may be a wee little dance troupe but it’s so much more than that. So the core of it was providing a space to learn the disciplines of dance. But, in that, we’re building relationships. We’re connected with mentors, people are still so vested, not only with the troupe but in the young people, in the young adults who now you ha– I was once the executive director of the troupe. I worked for the National Park. I worked for Lowell Community Health Center. We have dancers who are teachers in the public school system who are designers and fashion– like they’re open– they’re entrepreneurs in the community. And all because there was a space that provided us to be able to become confident in who we are. That we– it is, yes, we are Khmer American and it’s okay to be both. And it was this– sometimes there was this wanting to be more American because it was easier. It was just simple like, “Oh, I don’t want to dance. I want to just play basketball and/or dance or do something different that’s not Khmer.” And then it was the opportunity to develop. And then, when the school system was welcoming, when the state and federal funding is encouraging the schools to say, “How do we provide a space so that the troupe and the community can share with others in a way where there’s understanding? So that there’s compassion and that they may speak a different language and they may eat different foods but how do we embrace that?” And the funding, when it continues to go on and it’s developing even this next cohort of dancers to take on more leadership roles and to understand– there’s dance and then there’s the performance aspect. But then there’s this whole managing an organization and what it means to have people who will manage it and manage it correctly and manage it responsibly. And so, it’s interesting to see the young people all have different interests. They want to learn how to manage the stage. They want to learn how to play the music. They want to understand how do we deal with our vendors when they call us and want to get us to perform at places. So all of those avenues, being able to have funding to provide that space for them, it– I think it was even a struggle for my dad to then be like, “We’re– no, we’re a dance troupe. We teach dance.” I’m like, “Yeah, but those are people. There’s a whole human being that’s coming to dance. You can’t compartmentalize the fact that they may be coming from a home that’s not supportive and that they were sneaking out to come to dance or that they’re not going to school, yeah, but they’re coming to dance every week and we need to address that.” And working in collaboration with other youth organizations, of course– and within the city Lowell has amazing youth development organizations. But being able to have that network to ensure that beyond dance and the troupe, what we can provide, that the youth will also– we’re already connected to other resources to make sure they’re…
Anita Walker: Now, how many generations later? You were three years old and now…
Linda Sou: I know. I mean, well, there’s three decades so there’s definitely– I mean we do have families who are start– their grandchildren are now coming through the program, starting to come.
Anita Walker: So that tells you, because that was really the genius of thinking about it as an organization, because that’s what gave it its sustainability so that it would be there. Not only would the art form be there that you preserved and conserved to protect it and practiced, but also the organization that delivers that art form and engages the young people better and better all the time.
Linda Sou: I know. I try. I try.
Anita Walker: Oh, Linda Sou, dancer and volunteer with the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, another one of our creative minds out loud. Thank you.
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