Traditional Khmer dance is better described as 'dance-drama' it is not merely dance but also meant to convey a story or message. There are four main modern genres of traditional Khmer dance: 1) Classical Dance; 2) Shadow theater; 3) Lakhon Khol (all-male masked dance-drama.); 4) Folk Dance.
As evidenced in part by the innumerable apsaras (celestial dancers) adorning the walls of Angkorian temples, traditional dance has been part of Khmer culture for well more than a millennium. Yet there have been ruptures in the tradition over the centuries, making it almostimpossible to precisely trace the source of the tradition. Though much modern traditional dance was inspired by Angkorian-era art and themes, the tradition has not been passed unbroken from the age of Angkor.
Most traditional dances performed today were developed in the 18th through 20th centuries, beginning in earnest with a mid-19th century revival championed by King Ang Duong. Subsequent Kings and other Khmer Royals also strongly supported the arts and dance, most particularly Queen Sisowath Kossamak Nearireach (former King Norodom Sihanouk's mother) in the mid-20th century, who not only fostered a resurgence in the development of Khmer traditional dance, but also helped move it out of the Palace and popularize it.
Many traditional dances including most Theatrical Folk Dances were developed and refined from the 1940s-60s under the patronage of Queen Kossamak at the Conservatory of Performing Arts and the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Queen Kossamak trained her granddaughter Princess Bopha Devi in traditional dance from early childhood, and she went on to become the face of Khmer traditional dance in the 1950s and 60s both in Cambodia and abroad. Like so much of Cambodian art and culture, traditional dance was almost lost under the brutal repression of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, only to be revived and reconstructed in the 1980s and 90s due, in large part, to the extraordinary efforts of Princess Bopha Devi.