Every day, when night falls, Yao Qifeng, a 10-year-old girl pirouettes and twirls under a dim streetlight on a square in front of Daci Temple in Chengdu, Southwest China’s Sichuan province. She practices attentively basic ballet skills – backward bend, slips, spin and coordination – oblivious to the passers-by who stop to watch her, open-mouthed.
“The streetlights are my stage lights and the passers-by, my audience,” says the 10-year-old, showing not a trace of shyness.
Since April 2009, Yao Qifeng has been making the daily, post-dinner trip to the square to practice her ballet moves, accompanied by her father.
“Dancing is her passion,” says her father Yao Yongzhong.
“My daughter has been following (ballet) performers on television from the age of 4,” the father says.
The 55-year-old father seems abashed while watching his daughter’s movements. “The more she gets obsessive about it, the more I feel ashamed,” he said.
Living on about 1,000 yuan per month, comprising the unemployed father’s subsistence allowance and the mother’s meager wages as a supermarket assistant, the family crowds into a 20-square-meter dark, dank, rented room crammed with old furniture and can hardly afford the expense of learning ballet. However, it doesn’t stop Yao from pursuing her dream.
For Yao, the one bed that occupies a third of their room is more than just a place where she and her parents sleep, it is also her “stage”.
Asked why she is so fond of dancing, Yao says: “I think all dancers are beautiful, and I have always dreamed of being one of them.”
Yao became fascinated with ballet dancing three years ago. Her father borrowed a DVD from a friend and bought dancing discs from vendors’ stands. For Yao, television was her enlightening teacher.
She would often go to the Chengdu Arts’ Center, peering through the windows to watch the ballet lessons.
“I was full of envy when I saw them dancing, wearing ballet dresses and learning skills from professional teachers. Moreover, they were with piano accompaniment.” She said.
“I never told my parents because one term cost more than 400 yuan – too expensive for my family,” Yao recalls.
But her parents could read her thoughts. Finally, in 2008, after scraping together every penny they had saved, they sent Yao to her long cherished dance class at the Chengdu Arts’ Center.
“I was too shy to enter the dance room at first, because there were so many people there. But once I started dancing, I forgot everything else,” Yao says.
She dared not dream of a ballet dress, but chanced upon a pair of ballet shoes discarded by a classmate, and has cherished them ever since.
“It wouldn’t matter even if I have to dance barefoot, as long as I can dance,” the girl says.
In just one term, Yao made it to the fourth grade, something that takes most dancers three terms of training.
“She is gifted but she also loves ballet from her heart and works harder than all the others,” Wang Qian, headmaster of Yao’s training school, says. “We could see that she really cherished the opportunity to learn.”
Once the term ended, Yao told her parents she could practice by herself and do without the training.
“Obviously she was worried about the fees,” her father says.
It was her mother who discovered the open ground which, Yao says, is “just like a dance room.” A discarded carpet, which Yao senior picked up outside a shop, completes the picture.
To protect his daughter from injury, the father has brought home a disposed nylon carpet and unfolds it under the street lamp every evening to let the girl perform on an open stage.
“Taking the lamp as a spotlight and passers-by as the audience, I hope she likes it,” said the father.
Yao’s story, highlighted recently by the Chengdu-based West China City Newspaper, has touched millions of Chinese readers via the Internet. Many organizations, as well as individuals, have responded with offers of help.
Thanks to the Soong Ching Ling Foundation (CSCLF), a charity organization, Yao has returned to her dance classes.
“We were moved by her diligence after reading her story,” Tu Huajun from the organization says. “It would be a pity if she has to give up her dream or waste her talents, so we have decided to fund her training with 5,000 yuan (US$751) every year.”
“She is sensible and self-disciplined, and she spends most of her time studying rather than playing like her peers,” says Hou Mingyu, a neighbor who has known Yao for nearly five years. “She is mature beyond her years.”
Having a wide range of interests, Yao also takes classes in drawing, singing and calligraphy, and has been excelling in these as well.
“It’s like she never tires and has a strong determination to do well in all that she is learning,” headmaster Wang says. “She’s such a vivacious girl.”
Yao has decided to apply to the People’s Liberation Army’s Institute of Arts in Beijing in 2011, where she can study for free.
“I want to learn all kinds of dances, and become a great dancer like Yang Liping or Hou Honglan,” says the confident youngster, without batting an eyelid.
Yang is choreographer and star performer of the acclaimed Dynamic Yunnan show and Hou is often referred to as China’s “princess of ballet.”
I hope that this little girl will truly blossom into a ballet star. That would be a truly uplifting story!