dance cambodia

An exchange of art and culture which carries with it a message of peace and caring.

Our Visit to the Harpswell Dormitory and Leadership Center for Women

Sunday 21st June

At 8.15 this morning Mong picked us up and took us to the Harpswell Dormitory for Women. A professor from one of the universities in Boston built the dormitory three years ago. The story is that he met a Cambodian woman in the US who had studied law in Phnom Penh, and had lived in the basement of the university while she was there. This is because for women who don’t live in Phnom Penh and have no extended family in the city, it is impossible to find somewhere to live. The young men that come from the provinces can live in the religious institutions during their studies, but this is not possible for women.
In response to meeting this young Cambodian lawyer in the US he decided to build a dormitory in Phnom Penh specifically for the brightest young women from the provinces, so they have somewhere to live, which allows them the opportunity to study at university. Over 1000 women apply to the dormitory each year and only 34 women are chosen. The young women who are often from extremely poor families can stay there for free while they are studying. (I hope I have got all my facts right here – you can check by looking at their web site:
We spent the whole day with the women and with Vanna Peou, their dormitory mother, who obviously does extraordinary work with them.
These women are all studying at the universities in Phnom Penh. Their majors are in such subjects as law, economics, sociology, accounting and banking.
They are basically being educated and primed to be future leaders in Cambodia.
We knew that we were going to speak with them about leadership, and to dance for them and watch some of their dancing, but we never imagined that it would be such a moving and enthralling experience being together.
We all sat in their kitchen together. They found small stools for us. Some of us and all of them sat on the tiled floor.
We began by introducing ourselves to them and they to us. We spoke about our own experience of taking leadership roles through teaching, creating work with other people, and our thoughts about the importance of finding alternative ways to think about leadership. We asked them about their experiences which they shared enthusiastically.

Vanna Peou and some of the women
Vanna Peou and some of the women

Young women of Harpswell
Young women of Harpswell

Very soon it was obvious that the women’s definition of what leadership constitutes was much broader than the narrow way certainly I was thinking about it. To them leadership is synonymous to ‘taking responsibility’ in every aspect of your life. They spoke eloquently about the absolute importance of personal integrity when taking responsibility. They stunned us with the description of their way of life in the dormitory, and how they discuss world affairs and discussions on various topics, always from the perspective of leadership, or taking responsibility. They also spoke about the way they work together in all ways, helping and supporting each other in their learning and decision-making. They live happily together in an egalitarian fashion.
Young women’s attentive faces
Young women's attentive faces

We spoke a lot about the role of women in their society and in ours, and that despite the fact women have more opportunities in the west, the essential issues that are faced by women in Cambodia and the fight for their rights to be leaders and respected members of their communities, are the same issues being addressed by women all over the world.
Vanna is very clear that the situation for women and for a leadership that is radically different from what most of the world is currently experiencing, will come about through the education of women, because it is women who in turn bring up and educate children. So that it will be women who change society by changing themselves. She had been warned before she took the job at the dormitory that it would be impossible to bring about the kind of harmony and egalitarian living that she wanted to encourage within a group of young women. She was warned that there would be constant arguing and unhappiness. She has proved all these people to be wrong. The dormitory is one of the happiest places I have had the good fortune to visit. The women were remarkably curious and self possessed without a trace of arrogance. How they spoke about leadership was extraordinary, very human and passionate. They expressed a care for their country and the state of the world that was deeply moving and the way they were looking to the future was full of confidence and founded in goodness, respect and the desire to bring people together.
We felt inspired and thrilled to be with a large group of women in this way, in that little kitchen speaking together about leadership.
If any of you that are reading this blog ever visit Cambodia you MUST visit the dormitory.
I told Vanna that I thought she and the women should tour the US, UK and EU and speak to people about what they are discovering together and how they are addressing the issues of leadership. There is something truly remarkable happening in this place.
They are in the process of building a second dormitory so that more of Cambodia’s poor and bright young women can profit from this opportunity, and in the end Cambodia and the rest of the world will profit greatly from what they are discovering together through the great care and love of Vanna Peou. She is a remarkable woman with a true vision of what is possible and how the world can change.

After this couple of hours speaking together Renay, Laura, Mei and I did a short demonstration of our dancing for them. They seemed to love what we did and asked us very astute questions about the nature of our work. Throughout the day these women were not shy to ask questions and to offer their points of view.

Mei and Renay performing in the kitchen
Mei and Renay performing in the kitchen

We went downstairs onto the front patio and ate a delicious vegetarian lunch that the women had prepared together for us. They do all the cooking and cleaning in the dormitory. This was the first time they had prepared a vegetarian meal.

After scrumptious food we were ushered into one of the very nice rooms with 2 bunk beds. Laura and I were given a bed each and we were able to rest peacefully for a while. Dealing with the intense heat and humidity in Cambodia is exhausting!
After resting we showed them some DVDs of our work, sitting together in an atmosphere of tremendous intimacy in one of their small study rooms where they have a television. As more women had joined us in the afternoon Vanna asked us to do another demonstration of improvisation, which we did in the outdoor space downstairs. The women then did some demonstrations for us of their own traditional dancing. We learned some of their dancing and they learned some of ours. It was a happy time for us all, and I felt that the dancing justly celebrated all the things we had talked about together throughout the day.
By the time we left around 4.30pm we were all highly inspired and excited.

View from top floor of dormitory
View from the top floor of dormitory

Performance downstairs
Performance in the downstairs space
In the bushes
In the bushes
More plant dancing
More plant dancing
More plant dancing
More plant dancing

This is a day that has made our trip here memorable. I will not forget the young women and their leader Vanna. I know that I will be returning to visit them, and I am very interested in what they will all do in the future.

It is possible for women to spend two months in residence at the dormitory, helping the young Cambodian women with their English and other aspects of their education. This would be something I would highly recommend to anyone who is looking for something worthwhile to do and I am sure it would be a tremendous learning experience.


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