When Lisa Sokha Nagatsuka was a child, she lived in a land where a thousand years of ancestral culture was at risk of disappearing forever. Her earliest memories are of the hardships of life under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975-79 when schools were destroyed and religion, traditional music and dance were forbidden.
“They wanted to break our spirits,” Lisa said. “There was no joy in life under their rule. It was a struggle just to survive.”
It was Lisa’s passion for the revival of traditional arts and culture that led her to set up Cambodian Living Arts and Culture NSW to promote the dance and music of her homeland in western Sydney.
Lisa’s family escaped war-torn Cambodia in 1979 for safety in Thailand. Her father, who was principal of a school in the refugee camp, was selected to come to Australia in 1983 through the Khmer Community Program. This was a government scheme to bring refugee artists, musicians and teachers to Australia to strengthen the resilience of a community struggling with trauma and grief.
After they settled in, her father helped set up a Sunday school to teach the Khmer language at Fairfield High School. Lisa, who had taught herself to dance by watching videos, volunteered to teach the children to dance.
“My father encouraged us to love and treasure our arts and culture,” Lisa said.
“He understood how important they are to our community’s well-being and healing.”
In 1994, Lisa returned to Cambodia where she studied classical dance under a teacher from the Cambodian Arts and Culture Academy in Phnom Penh and was able to practice at the Cambodian Royal Ballet School.
“From then on” she said. “My heart and soul have been dedicated to our beautiful, intricate, traditional Cambodian arts and culture.”
Cambodian classical dance, which traces its origins to the royal court, is highly stylised, with graceful hand gestures and elaborate costumes reminiscent of the sculptures of dancers that adorn Angkor Wat. Dance is an integral part of Cambodian cultural life and Lisa’s students perform at festivals, weddings and charity events.
Lisa works closely with other Cambodian organisations in Sydney.
“We couldn’t do this without their support,” she said.
Thin Em, President of the Cambodian Buddhist Society, said traditional dance and music are an important part of their celebrations. Lisa’s group performs at Cambodian New Year and Buddhist festivals at Wat Khemarangsaram.
When Lisa’s eldest child started school at St Johns Park school in 2006, she volunteered to teach dancing so Cambodian culture could be included in Multicultural Days. She also started to perform with her sisters at functions and taught her own children to dance. Soon, other children wanted to join in, and she taught in her living room until the classes outgrew the space. Classes are now held on Sunday afternoons at the Bushido Judo Club in Canley Vale.
“Everyone is welcome” Lisa said. “We want the children to have fun.”
Chanda Poch, whose daughter Kali has been attending classes for four years, said Kali was shy at first, but had developed confidence through dancing.
“I am grateful she can learn about her heritage” she said.
Folk dance is also part of the group’s repertoire and Lisa is always on the lookout for new dances to suit different ages and abilities. She finds videos on YouTube and masters the dance before teaching the children. She has also taught the parents, who perform the Harmony Dance, a folk dance at functions.
“The children love seeing their parents take part” she said.
Families help with the running of the school. Costumes, hairstyles and make up are intricate, and the dancers need help to get ready for performances. Classes resumed at the end of July, with health precautions in place and teachers and students wearing masks.
“My daughter Sophea was so excited when the classes started again,” Socheata Nyamushi said. “She looks forward each week to dancing and to catching up with her friends.”
Lisa said she is happiest when she sees her students smiling after their performances. She said: “I have my own philosophy, one that helped me to survive as a refugee and to thrive in my new life in Australia- never give up and always be positive no matter the obstacles.”