As the last rays of daylight disappear at the heart of Phnom Penh, teenagers – mostly in t-shirts, shorts and sneakers – flock into Wat Botum Park. They stand in rows, eagerly waiting for the start of the night’s shindig. And as a young man in front looks at his participants lined up haphazardly across a part of the dim-lighted park, the first note of the music starts to play.
Moy. Pi. Bai.
And in a semi-synchronised manner, a group of more than a hundred youths of all genders move and groove.
This has been the scene at Botum Park every single night for years and years now, except for nights when rain is too hard and gathering for a dance session is impossible. Teens aged around 15 to 25 go to the park at 6:30 pm and spend more than two hours to dance for fun and exercise.
“I started holding informal dance sessions at the Olympic Stadium in 2006. However, there were so many dance groups that time in the area so I had to find other locations where I can stand out. I moved to Wat Botum Park two years after. I choose the music we dance for the night. I transformed some of the hard dance steps to easier ones so people can catch up easily. It’s become a form of exercise as well,” said Siv Davin, the organiser and choreographer of the youth dance community at Wat Botum Park.
The 31-year old dancer, who also has a dance troupe of his own that backs up famous local singers, said he used to gather 150 to 170 people on weekdays and around 300 on weekends.
“Changing places from Olympic Stadium to the park was a challenge. People did not know where I transferred so it was hard for them follow. But over time, many new faces joined me every night,” added Mr Vin.
And why not? At just 1,500 riels, anyone can move their hips, sway their arms and stamp their feet to the upbeat music Vin prepares daily.
The group dances Khmer, Thai, English and Korean hits. Mr Vin leads the dance steps, everyone follows enthusiastically.
But more than having an avenue to show off their skills, the participants – workers, students or just bored teens – the nightly dance sessions have given them a chance to de-stress and breathe after an exhausting and tension-filled day at work, school or home.
Ou Sypha, a 20-year-old cook at a restaurant in Aeon Mall, is a regular participant of the dance community. Mr Sypha goes to the park at least four times a week.
“After my work, I go here and join the dance group. It’s my way of relaxing from a whole day’s work. And I also love K-Pop,” he said, adding that he is also a member of a dance troupe but has yet to dance professionally on events and shows.
Te Meyly, meanwhile, attends the nightly dance sessions every day. Having to attend Information Technology classes in the morning and another university in the afternoon, the dance community at the Wat Botum Park gives her a break from the monotonous school hours.
“I really love to dance every since. But when I first came here, I thought that I didn’t fit in the group. They are very talented well and I thought that I couldn’t be as good. So, I joined the Zumba-like sessions with the adults. However, after six years of dancing with them, I wanted to challenge myself more. That’s why I decided to join this group now,” Ms Meyly said.
The 21-year-old IT student also emphasised that joining the group has become her way of opening up to other people and gaining more friends.
“I made friends with the people here and they taught me the dance moves that I needed to learn so I don’t get left behind. After I learned the basic steps, it has become easier to follow new moves.”
Ms Meyly added that not everyone in the group are real dancers. Some come to make good use of their free time and some just have real fervour for dancing.
Mr Vin, for his part, said he welcomes everyone who wants to join his group – regardless of anything.
“This is for everyone, no matter who you are. If you want to dance or exercise, you can join us and have fun,” he said.
He also noted that the dance sessions they hold every night have been a stepping stone for some of the participants to join bigger events. In fact, just a week ago, about a hundred of the youths performed at the park for a beer-sponsored concert.
“The market for dancers is constantly rising,” Mr Vin said. “Events, shows and parties always hire dancers for entertainment. People in general love dancing or to see people dancing.”
And his community of young dancers is a solid proof to that.
The young choreographer added that he doesn’t mind repeating every dance move for the new participants. He walks from left to right, goes to each row of dancers to check if everyone is doing the steps correctly. It takes 15 minutes for the pros to learn new choreography, while it may take a little longer – an hour or so – for beginners.
“This dance sessions give everyone the opportunity to exercise and enjoy music at the same time. Even if you don’t have talent, it doesn’t matter. You will eventually learn if you keep trying. But there’s no pressure. We just want to have fun and make the most of the time we have after school or work.”
Moy. Pi. Bai.
As many more young people groove to the beat, the community Mr Vin has built will certainly soon become the highlight of Wat Botum Park.