Backstage at Cambodia’s first and only ladyboy show
The curtains rise on a glittering set and the first chord of Frank Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” blasts through the theater. The stage is all tight sequined dresses and white suits, as one of the female dancers – statuesque and decked with feathers – lip synchs with the music:
“You’re just too good to be true.”
This line is a perfect opener, because many of the women performing on-stage at Siem Reap’s Rosana Broadway cabaret show are indeed “too good to be true.” Most of the starlets at Rosana are “ladyboys,” to use the term popularized in Thailand, where cabaret shows like this draw huge audiences.
Every night these 76 Rosana dancers perform in the neon-lit theater off National Road 6, which can seat an audience of 842 at $30 a ticket.
Ladyboy revues may be popular in neighboring Thailand, but since opening three years ago Rosana Broadway has been the only show of its kind in Cambodia. Popular with Korean and Chinese tourists, it is still trying to draw more locals and Western tourists to its own surreal, gender-bending brand of cabaret. The manager, Oak Sambo, said that Cambodian audiences were at first unfamiliar with the idea of ladyboy cabaret stars. “Five years ago the Cambodian people didn’t have their hearts open to ladyboys, and didn’t know about them,” she said.
It’s not surprising that audiences might find the show strange. For a viewer used to the sedate pace of a traditional Apsara dance, a Rosana Broadway performance feels like a fever dream.
Sets and dance styles change with dizzying speed, from a traditional Hanuman dance set in a deep jungle, to an intricate routine set in a Chinese imperial throne room complete with giant dragons, to a hip hop number on a glitzy set that looks straight out of a music video by K-Pop star Psy.
The dancers’ genders change just as quickly as the musical styles. One performer will sport a Clark Gable mustache in one dance, and a pastel dress and peacock feathers in the next. Sometimes the gender swapping even happens in a single performance, with one dancer wearing a double-sided costume – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the price of one.
Though some of the performances are slightly raunchy, Rosana never veers into burlesque. Most ladyboy cabaret shows in Thailand play up the sex, but Rosana focuses on dance and spectacle. “It’s not a sexy show,” said Sambo. “It’s a show of different kinds of traditional dance.”
Sambo is right that the show is not particularly “sexy,” but it is only “traditional” in the loosest sense of the word. Apsara dance blends into a fan dance, which blends into slapstick comedy, which blends into K-Pop. Before each routine, a disembodied voice announces the country of origin: “Ladies and gentlemen, presenting a traditional dance from Vietnam.”
If the action onstage is surreal, backstage is even more so. Male dancers in Angkor-era armor rush past ladyboys wearing flamboyant blue gowns. Dragon sculptures loom overhead next to silver cloth backdrops, ready to be rolled into place for the next song. In the dark wings of the theater, dancers practice their moves, somehow balancing under the weight of their towering feather headdresses.
Just a few months ago, some of these dancers were waiters or fruit vendors in Siem Reap. Many were recruited for the cabaret thanks to the keen eye of Thai choreographer Kanoklak Panngoen.
Panngoen is the heart of the show – managing everything from dancer recruitment to choreography to set design and lighting. Slim and graceful at 43, she walks around the set in a yellow tank top, demonstrating moves for her dancers and occasionally shouting directions in a voice that is an octave lower than one would expect but never harsh or severe.
Panngoen pauses to talk to one performer, Belle, in a flouncy pink dress that looks like it was pulled directly from an Elizabethan period drama. “It’s her first time doing this dance, so she’s a little nervous,” Panngoen explains.
Nervous or not, Belle goes through her dance routine with the coquettish grace of a pro while lip synching to a Japanese love song. As the curtains close, she blows the imaginary audience a kiss, to the applause of her fellow dancers in the front row.
Panngoen learned by dancing in cabaret shows in her hometown of Bangkok, where she had performed since the age of 18. Bangkok, an international destination for gender reassignment surgery. has dozens of ladyboy cabarets with names like Calypso and Playhouse. In Cambodia these cabarets are about as common as hockey rinks.
In 2012 owner Wichit Thianthongdee decided to bring Bangkok-style cabaret to Cambodia, building the theater and recruiting a starting group of dancers from Thailand. When Panngoen first saw these job ads, she said she wasn’t interested. “I thought, ‘Why would I want to go to Cambodia?’” she said.
Without her knowledge, Panngoen’s best friend grabbed a copy of her headshot and sent it to Rosana Broadway. She was surprised to receive the job offer from the Cambodian cabaret, but grudgingly accepted. “At first I didn’t want to go to Cambodia,” she said. “But now I really love, love, love it here.”
She said planning the show and teaching the ladyboy lifestyle to her young protégées has become her life’s goal. “Every day I’m waiting for 4 o’clock [when rehearsals begin] because I miss everybody,” she said. “When I think about my life, I’m very happy that I ended up here. All of my experience – I want to share it with all of them.”
Panngoen certainly has plenty of experience to share. She has learned not only how to organize the Rosana’s intricate dance numbers, but also how to spot a good potential dancer in the unlikeliest places. “I saw one boy at a restaurant,” she said. “He was carrying food to a customer and I thought – he has a good walk. He has movement!”
Panngoen took the busboy with the good walk aside for a conversation. “He said he wanted to be a lady, but he didn’t know how,” Panngoen said. “So I said come, follow me. The first day the other dancers laughed at him because of his curly hair and dark skin…But he wanted to work in Rosana. He wanted to be a girl. Now she is a superstar.”
This superstar is the 22-year old Belle (the wearer of the flouncy pink dress) and she has been with the revue for three years now. “All my life I wanted to be a beautiful girl,” Belle said, “I feel very happy now to be able to perform.”
Like many other dancers, Belle – who was originally named Nao Narith – started as a costume worker backstage at Rosana before getting her moment in the spotlight. Panngoen helped her not just to learn to dance, but also helped her through the difficult transformation process of hormone therapy and surgery.
“I train them not only for dance, I train them for life, how to live as a ladyboy,” said Panngoen. “I teach everything – how to take care of their skin, how to take hormones, everything.” Rosana helps the dancers find the best surgeons in Bangkok who can give them breast implants or facial surgery.
To put the “lady” in ladyboy, Rosana’s dancers can spend as long as one and a half hours applying makeup backstage. The time is well spent – even from good seats at the front of the theater, it is not always easy to tell male from female.
Despite her accomplishments, Panngoen was humble about the quality of the show. “It’s not perfect – not the same as the ladyboys in Thailand,” she said, pointing out that finding ladyboys with long, beautiful legs has been a challenge. “Expectations are a little lower in Cambodia,” she explained.
If the show did not quite meet Thai standards, the audience didn’t care. Mostly Chinese and Korean tourists, they clapped along, waved to the dancers, and gasped audibly when Gangnam Style played. Most were so eager to record the spectacle that they flagrantly broke the rule against filming the show, raising their smartphones to shoot video.
For young Cambodian men who dream of becoming women, there are few chances to be the object of this kind of attention. “Rosana is the dream of Cambodian ladyboys,” Panngoen said, “because there is nothing else…If the Khmer ladyboys didn’t have Rosana what would they do? If they wanted to be a lady – to have long hair and a dress – they would have nowhere else to work.”
Rosana gives dancers the chance both to earn a living and to live out their gender identity, even if they come from poor families. “If you want to be a beautiful woman you will spend a lot of money,” said Ms. Sambo, “but a lot of them [the dancers] come from a poor family. Now they can earn a little money…they can afford makeup, they can afford a motorbike.”
The dancers at Rosana have the chance to be more than just performers. Some have also gotten desk jobs, the kind of job that several performers said is usually off limits to ladyboys, because of a common prejudice in Cambodia that transsexual people are uneducated.
One of the dancers, Ker Mao Rath, who goes by Mong, used to be a dancer in a bar, until she was recruited by Rosana. Now Mong, who speaks Chinese, Thai, and English, works a second job as a sales assistant at the cabaret. ‘Rosana gave me the opportunity to do office work,” she said. “In other companies they wouldn’t accept us [ladyboys], even though we can do the work. They disliked ladyboys.”
She said her two salaries have made her life better. This is evident in at least one way: she has made enough to buy an iPad, on which she plays a game of Mortal Kombat in the makeup room as she waits for the night’s show to begin.
An hour later, Mong is onstage in sequins and feathers at the end of her dance. She steps backwards as the curtains close in front of her. Just before the curtains close, she blows a kiss to the audience, and the lights go out.
Namwan, 28, in the dressing room. Fabien Mouret
Ny, 18, gets ready to go on stage. Fabien Mouret
Choreographer Kanoklak Panngoen watches Belle practice her routine during rehearsals before the evening show. Fabien Mouret
And, 21, puts on her makeup backstage. Fabien Mouret
Emm, 36, puts on her headdress backstage. Fabien Mouret