Khmer choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was given an award by the National Endowment for the Arts, after co-founding the Khmer Arts Academy in California.
The National Heritage Fellowship is the highest form of federal recognition for folk and traditional arts. Shapiro and 10 others were awarded this year.
“The reason why I think her award today is so important is that it gives her the ability to continue the art,” Laura Richardson, a Democratic congresswoman from California who joined the Sept. 22 ceremony, told VOA Khmer.
“Art is so powerful because art doesn’t judge men, women, boys, and girls,” she said. “It’s preserving our cultures. By being able to show the art, it teaches young people to respect their elders. It teaches young people something special that they have and that no one has. So, I am hoping by her continuing to teach the art, we can help more kids in learning, rather than being out in the streets doing something negative, and she has been doing it for a long time and we value her and love her in our community.”
Shapiro said she felt honored to be given the award, which includes a grant of $25,000.
“It is important that I use this fellowship to support and continue to teach art at our Khmer Art Academy,” she said.
Shapiro began training in Khmer art form in 1981. Two years after moving to Long Beach in 2002, she co-founded Khmer Arts Academy in the hopes of preventing the loss of the art form in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge.
Barry Bergey, the NEA’s director for Folk and Traditional Arts, told VOA Khmer that in any year, the endowment gets 250 or so nominations. Only 10 or 11 are selected.
“Sophiline, of course, was recognized not only for her artistic skills and choreography, but for the fact that she teaches and makes such a commitment to the art form, and the panel recognized that,” Bergey said. “There’s no requirement in any way in terms of using the money, but we know these artists are committed to their traditions [and] that they are most likely to carry on what they are doing.
“That is what we want them to do, to continue just what they do, make art, teach about the art form and interact with the public,” he said. “Sophiline has done that both in the United States and in Cambodia, and that makes her special.”