A troupe of older non-professional Chinese ballet dancers challenge age prejudice.
Liu Li was taking quick breaths, her fingers seemed to snap with the rhythm as she rehearsed the moves in her mind. She ducked her head as she realised she had missed a few beats; she became uneasy as the curtain rose.
A cluster of light slowly brightened, rising alongside the music. The dancers appeared on the stage, standing on pointe. Dressed in classic white ballet tutus, feathered headdresses and busts adorned with beads and sequins, they resembled a wedge of graceful white swans. Yet, despite their delicate makeup, the signs of age were hard to hide.
The average age of this ballet company from China’s Shandong province is 60 years of age. Not one of them trained professionally. Yet, since the troupe formed in 2013, they have done more than 600 performances. On this particular Saturday, they performed their choreographed dance Ballet of Waking Dreams, at Shandong’s Poly Art Theatre.
Li listened to the beat. “Oh no, two beats slower,” she thought. This meant her movements would be two or three seconds slower than the other dancers. Beside her, the ballet troupe leader Xinming Wang felt Li’s arm trembling and gently patted the back of her hand. Recognising her predicament, Wang slid a small step to the right to hide Li from the audience, slightly nodding to her as she did so.
It was Wang, 66, the ballet company’s captain, who founded the troupe of older dancers nine years ago. From small beginnings, the company now has 26 regular members who are non-professional ballet dancers. Before retirement from regular work, they had worked as university professors, judges and nurses. Their success is at odds with how older people are portrayed in the media in many places around the world. A 2021 United Nations study found older people were negatively portrayed in the media. A review of more than 1,200 tweets portrayed the cohort as a disenfranchised, vulnerable group.
'When we first started no one dared to come ... many were afraid that their family and friends would laugh at them.'
This negative view of aging is also prevalent in China. However, in 2021, a hit variety show Sisters Who Make Waves challenged that view and sparked a social debate about age and opportunity across the country. One female netizen said “the participants do not define or limit themselves by their age”. Another said “the girls in front of the screen [are] happily discovered that getting older is not synonymous with losing one’s beauty”.
Similarly, Shandong’s older ballet dancers are challenging stereotypes about their age as they strive to achieve their dreams. As a result, in a shout-out to the variety show, some netizens have named the ballet dancers the “grandmothers who ride the waves”.
“They are very new and rare,” Baoran Huo, a reporter from Shandong TV, said. “They convey positive images of the elderly rarely seen in the media. Numerous viewers were stunned at their talent despite their age.”
Force of nature
IN OCTOBER, Shandong’s temperatures are mild and the roads are still carpeted with yellow leaves. Xinming Wang’s home is in the centre of Ji Ning city, in an independent neighbourhood built last century. The red wall tiles show signs of slight water damage, private cars are parked indiscriminately on the street. The neighbourhood is tranquil, and occasionally, elderly people can be seen on the street, chatting with neighbours or looking after their grandchildren.
Wang’s home is on the first floor of her building, above a small garden filled with vegetables. “I like to grow some vegetables and they are pesticide-free.”
She wears a long dark green dress, her hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head, her posture graceful and upright. Her eyes are typical danfeng eyes. She hands me a cup of warm lemon tea, casually cutting a mint leaf from the flowerpot next to her and dropping it into the cup. “This will make the tea more refreshing,” she smiled and took a sip.
Then she explained how she came to be a ballet dancer. “I like to dance, but I learned ballroom dance first rather than ballet; I remember I was 30 years old and I won the ballroom dancing competition of Ji Ning city.”
Wang was born in the 1950s and grew up in the planned Chinese economy of the 1960s when many people struggled to make ends meet. Her parents did not support her love of dance, believing education was her only way to build a better life. During her childhood, she would watch pictorials or imitate the movements of actors dancing in the publicity team (a government-sponsored propaganda team that promoted its policies and ideas through dance and other performance).
“I don’t have any basic dancing skills. I could only learn some simple dances,” she sighed, her face a little forlorn. “Maybe I could have become a professional ballerina.”
As an adult, Wang wanted to learn ballet, however, she could not find a teacher willing to take her “because they thought I was too old to learn ballet”. Her solution was to watch and learn. “I learned in the back of the classroom following the children and then practised on my own.”
When she subsequently retired from her government job, she joined the Jining Cultural Arts Centre where she tried folk dance and national standard dance; however, however neither captured her imagination.
Rather than give up her ballet dream, Xinming Wang audaciously decided to establish her own ballet company. It was a project she knew would not yield instant success. “You don’t know how difficult this decision was; no one supported me,” she said after a pause as she swirled the tea in her cup. “I believed that I could do anything despite my age.”
She recalled the conversation she had with the dean of the arts centre about her idea. “He was silent for a while,” she said, and then he told me “I can’t agree, you’re too old and prone to injury; I need to take responsibility for it”. I assured him I would not get injured, that I had a healthy body; so "why can we not dance?”. The dean did not like that reply. He frowned, glared and raised his voice, asking “Xinming Wang, do you want to be in the limelight?”
The dean's answer was no. In the nights that followed, Wang could not sleep. Her husband encouraged her not to give up her dream. “You try again, do not leave regrets; if you do not go to do, you will struggle for a long time.”
So, she went back to the dean’s office a second and third time. Finally, it was agreed that she could establish a troupe under her own name, which had nothing to do with the arts centre. What the arts centre did provide was a rehearsal space in a long-deserted storage room. The cramped triangle of space had only one small window. It was here she started her ballet dream.
“She loves ballet, and she is courageous,” said Xinrong Zhao, the ballet troupe's deputy director, who joined the group in 2013. “I loved ballet dresses, but I never thought I could wear them to dance,” Zhao said. “Elderly people dancing ballet will be ridiculed; establishing a ballet company for the elderly is simply unimaginable.”
How old is too old to start ballet? It is never too late, just as it’s never too late to start learning a language. The nature of things and behaviours are not bound by set limits but by how people define themselves.
When conversing with Wang and Zhao, I realised that they chose to break age stereotypes and discrimination. Age stereotypes are severe in China, especially for older people, even by the older people themselves. Wang told me “when we first started enrolling people, no one dared to come because they thought they were too old to dance ballet and many were afraid that their family and friends would laugh at them”.
'Prone to injury', instant fame
Xinming Wang doesn’t like to talk about dancing injuries. The dean had warned her in their initial conversation she would be too prone to injury. She strongly rejects dancing harms the body, explaining her injury occurred due to a wrong step.
It was a hot day in July, and as they performed, Wang’s right eyelid kept twitching. An old oriental proverb warns “twitching of the left eye is a sign of fortune but twitching of the right eye is a sign of disaster”. She recalls slowly moving to the centre of the stage and as the climax approached, leaping to form a gorgeous curve with her body. Suddenly, she fell with a thud. In considerable pain , she stood as soon as she could. Biting her lip, she felt that her back was about to break. However, she insisted on finishing the show. Later, the doctor diagnosed a hipbone fracture, ordering two weeks’ bed rest and advised her not to dance for a year.
Would Wang listen to her doctor's advice? She was back in the dance company after only a month. However, due to her injury, she sat off-stage, recording the performance. As she watched the recording back, she made another bold decision; to send their performance video to China Central Television (CCTV) without telling anyone else in the troupe. “Actually, I wasn’t confident because we are not professionals. I just wanted to try.”
Wang was taking a nap when the call back came. Thinking it was her alarm, she turned it off. After a few minutes, the phone rang again. “Hello, this is the CCTV World of Dance directing team, your work has passed through the layers of selection....”
“Can you believe that?” she asked me, then she laughed. “No one believed it, I told the executive producer at the station in Shandong and she thought I was being lied to.”
However, it was true. It was their moment to shine. They practised with intensity, correcting their mistakes, even using slow-motion technology to better synchronise their movements.
Then came the performance. It was in spring, 2015. Wang sensed a faint trace of reality when she saw, on the Beijing skyline, the “giant short pants” shape of the CCTV building. To perform on a CCTV stage would be the proudest moment for any Chinese artist. It was no different for Xinming Wang’s dance troupe. Then, the night before their performance, as the rest of the troupe slept, there was a sharp knock at her door. It was the World of Dance assistant director: “Captain Wang, there is something wrong with your live rehearsal, the overall formation has to be rearranged.” Wang argued “it is impossible, we do not have enough time!” However, the assistant director insisted “if you do not change, the stage layout will be chaotic”.
Wang had no choice but to wake the performers to rehearse the changes in the hotel corridor, where the lights would go out and they would stomp their feet to make them come back on. They rehearsed all night. As the performance time approached, their excitement rose. They had never seen the CCTV studio, experienced its magnificent atmosphere, or stepped onto its stage. The stage is 25 meters long, with two huge LED screens and countless spotlights. Backstage it was crowded with dancers from across the country.
First to perform, they took the stage like a wedge of holy white swans, with high necks, upright chests, slightly bulging wings and bodies tilted forward, dancing proudly in the water. As the music quickened, their movements became lively with twists and turns, climaxing with the “swans” in the centre of the stage, arms gradually opening and their heads looking up. Everyone applauded.
It was Xinming Wang's most memorable and proudest performance and everyone came to congratulate her. The ballet company that began in a triangular storage room with on small window gained instant fame.
Faces in the troupe
Today, the ballet studio is on the art centre’s southeast corner, separated from the other classrooms by a wide gallery. There is a floor-to-ceiling window in the studio, looking out onto a garden. The smooth surface of the pale wooden floor is scratched in places, some light, some deep, with the wear and tear of rehearsals.
Liu Li comes into the studio, changes her clothes and starts her stretching exercises. Before the official practice, she needs to stretch her bodies to prevent injuries. Li stands out in a crowd, with her charm, cute face and a smile like a crescent. Her tight, upright back gives no indication of her advanced age. Five years ago, she passed by the arts centre and was surprised to see grandmothers practising ballet by the window.
“I always thought only children could dance,” she said. At first, Li found it hard. Standing on tiptoe in her new ballet shoes, her toes curled up, it felt like she was standing on wood. “I did not want to fall behind; every time after practice, my calves had slight swelling and my toes went black due to my weight,” she said. “The toes hold all the power, and the blood circulation to the toenails is cut off, which causes them to fall off.”
Men Ge, an instructor with the ballet company, has been studying ballet for 20 years. “I was sceptical at first that they could dance well due to their advanced age,” she said. “To stand on tiptoe is the most classic and difficult step and a professional ballet dancer requires long hours of practice to do it.”
Out of curiosity, I tried on the ballet shoes, finding both sides of the steel-sided shoe squeezing my toes to the middle. As I carefully rose to stand on tiptoe, I felt like I was standing on a piece of wood, feeling pain as if my toenails were breaking. I didn’t dare to move. “You’re not as good as us old people,” Wang said with a smile.
Li has worn out her dance shoes and her feet are covered in calluses and scars. However, with the daily practice, she can now stand on tiptoe successfully.
In the first decades of the People’s Republic of China, ballet carried a political and historical message, with performances of ballets such as The Red Army and The White Maiden. It wasn’t until the 1970s after the reform and opening up Wang says Chinese dance lovers saw Western ballets such as The Four Little Swans (the fourth scene in Swan Lake).
“I prefer the Western court dances because the clothes look better; however, the Chinese ballet has adopted more elements of Chinese folk dance and is unique,” Li said. “Do you know Yuanyuan Tan? She is our favourite modern ballet dancer, we often study her works, and she is gorgeous.”
Ballet as therapy
Meiling Zhuang, another member of troupe, is tall, thin and a little pale. Six years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. The long days of treatment, the pain and chemotherapy were too much for her to bear. “She was unhappy every day, in a terrible state and took antidepressants,” her sister said, “but she always pretended to be happy in front of us.”
Wang convinced her to join the dance troupe, but she kept her distance, rarely talking to others and then she stopped coming to the studio.
“I... I can’t dance, my body is too poor,” she told Wang but her dance captain would not let her go. “You can try again, you cannot dwell in this atmosphere, come on, I'll practice with you,” Wang promised her.
Zhuang agreed to return to the dance group. She felt overwhelmed, as she was weak. However, she watched videos at home and imitated the steps. She thus slowly fell in love with ballet. She smiled more and started to interact with others. Her diligence was reflected in her clothes, soaked in sweat, and she seemed to forget she was a cancer survivor.
When we spoke, her bag accidentally slipped from her hand. As I helped her pick up the contents, I saw many pill cases. “It's much better than before. I don’t have to take a lot of medication. Ballet gives me hope and reinvigorates me,” Zhang said with a smile. “I didn't expect to find and achieve something I love at my age, and I'm quite lucky.”
As another performance looms, the ballet troupe is busy with intense rehearsals. No-one seems fatigued, everyone is focussed.
A wedge of beautiful white swans cross the stage, their confidence and charm evident: the bravery and persistence of Xinming Wang, the hard work and sweat of Liu Li, and the new life of Meiling Zhuang all on display. These women have proved to themselves and the world that growing older is not terrible, that beauty is the fruit of a combination of past experiences and efforts.
As I say goodbye to the “ballet grandmothers”, the indomitable Captain Wang makes a promise for every older dancer’s future: “We will insist on dancing. You will find us dancing until we are 80 or 90.”