A Cambodian Dancer in a Displaced Persons’ Camp


  • Toni Shapiro-Phim International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Brandeis University, Waltham, USA




dance ethnology, refugees, genocide, moral imagination, classical dance


The more than a quarter of a million Cambodians in camps on the Thai side of the Cambodia-Thailand border in the late 20th century are referred to, in Khmer, as chun pies khluon. This translates into English as “refugees,” but means, literally, “those who are escaping” or “people on the run.” Existing between a then-recent past of devastating loss and a future as yet unknown, they remained in an unsettled situation of physical precarity for more than a decade as many of the camps along that border were in an active war zone.

Focusing mainly on one dancer in Site 2 camp, this essay explores ways in which dancers and musicians were bringing into being an aesthetic and spiritual potency that transcended the surrounding reality, not only as momentary escape, (though that can be powerful in its own right), but also as fortification against dehumanization. The combination of an embodied passing on of cultural knowledge with formal documentation of the arts and associated rituals reveal an eye to and imagination of a future back inside Cambodia, something at odds with the reality of the camp inhabitants’ prolonged exile.

Author Biography

Toni Shapiro-Phim, International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, Brandeis University, Waltham, USA

Toni Shapiro-Phim, Professor of Creativity, Arts, and Social Transformation and Assistant Director of Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis University (USA), received a PhD in cultural anthropology from Cornell University. Her applied and scholarly work focuses on displacement, war, genocide and gender violence, and the arts, with publications (and a documentary film) on arts and human rights, dance and transitional justice, and performance and community building.






Special Collection "Music and Forced Migration"