China disabled troupe breaks barriers through art

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Feeling music through speakers and guided by hand gestures, a troupe of deaf dancers in Beijing takes steps to champion the rights of disabled people around the world.

In between them prances Luo Xiangjun, a 25-year-old from China’s southern Guangxi region, who pauses to pick up a wooden ladle with his foot, then raises it to his head while balancing on one leg.

Luo’s dexterity is impressive, but hardly surprising in China, where gravity-defying acrobatics have been an art form for centuries. Luo, however, has no arms.

He lost them after he touched a high-voltage cable when playing as a seven-year-old.

“In China, as with the rest of the world, we face a lot of obstacles. Disabled people are still a weak group in society,” said Luo, in between rehearsals at a training school in Beijing.

“But I hope through my hard work and our efforts here, we can overcome these difficulties.”

Luo is one of only a few dozen people selected out of thousands of hopefuls to train with the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe, a collective of some 88 dancers, musicians and artists who have turned their triumph over adversity into an acclaimed stage show.


Since forming in 1987, the troupe has performed in more than 40 countries and has raised about 5 million yuan ($700,000) for disabled people’s charities, according to organizers.

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Its contingent of deaf dancers performed their signature “Thousand-hand Guanyin” dance -- a visually stunning movement where the performers’ arms sway and flick behind a lead dancer -- at the closing ceremony of the Athens Paralympic Games.

“At Athens, the audience was huge. We had never played in front of so many people before. We were all quite nervous,” said Tai Lihua, the troupe’s deaf artistic director and a performer for over 15 years.

“But we were very successful and showed people the splendor of China,” the 32-year-old said. “We hope to do the same at Beijing in 2008.”

With little difficulty booking gigs for both commercial and charity events, the group also has no problem finding recruits among China’s 90 million people with disabilities, said Tai, who lost her hearing at the age of two after receiving a tainted injection for a fever.

“We get calls and emails from applicants every day hoping to join up,” she said.

The lucky few who make the grade sleep in dormitory accommodation at the troupe’s base in Beijing, rehearse almost every day and generally only go home to their families, scattered across all corners of China, during the Lunar New Year holidays.


“The biggest challenge for us is that we can’t hear the music,” said Wei Yujie, a 16-year-old student at the school.

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“So we have to use our hands and feel the music’s beats to learn,” she said.

As dancers stand in line to learn different repertoires, teachers give instructions in sign language. Sometimes the dancers breathe on the back of their fellow troupe members’ necks to let them know when to flick an arm or twirl a hand in time to the rhythm of the music.

The training is hard, but the dancers all feel fortunate, and grateful to act as ambassadors for Chinese culture, in a country where few disabled people have jobs or even access to aids like prosthetic limbs.

Beijing organizers hope the Paralympics will improve conditions and raise awareness for the country’s disabled people, but even in China’s sprawling capital, only 7 percent of the city’s nearly 1 million disabled residents have gainful employment, the China Disabled Persons Federation said last year. Outside of big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, millions more face discrimination and poverty across China’s vast countryside, where education levels are lower and resources scarce.

The challenges are not lost on Tai, even as she prepares to take her dancers to the United States for a tour to promote “My Dream”, a home-grown film documenting the troupe’s rise to the world stage.

“People have turned their pity for disabled kids to wanting to help them,” Tai said.

“They are becoming more educated and society is improving bit by bit, but it will be a slow process.”