For decades, China’s acrobatics schools served as a ticket out of poverty for low-income families. But in an increasingly affluent society, fewer students are enrolling, and the schools are struggling to survive.
It’s 5:50 am, with just a faint purple light glowing on the horizon, when a group of children aged 6 to 15 march diligently toward their classrooms. At 6:15, they begin lessons in Chinese, English, and math. At 7:50, they stop for breakfast.
There’s no time to linger, though, because the students must be clean and dressed by 8.30. They head upstairs to two spacious rooms on the first floor of an L-shaped building near the center of Liaoning’s capital, Shenyang.
Here, the real training begins—in acrobatics.
The boys and girls prepare to bend their bodies backward until they can hold their legs with their hands. “One, two, three!” instructs Wang Ying, 47, head of the children’s team at the Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe School.
The kids then proceed to hold this near-circular inversion for more than a minute. Some of the youngest students are visibly in pain, tears rolling down their cheeks, but none give up or cry openly. At most, they break the silence with a sigh of relief when the position is released.
“We teach them all kinds of techniques, but flexibility is the most important thing at this age,” Wang says. “Even after two weeks of holiday, it feels like starting from scratch, like their bones are welded together.”
Wang watches over the group with a straight face. Firm but kind, she laughs with the children and uses encouraging words rather than the martial obedience demanded by those who trained her. When the class ends at 11:20 on the dot, she holds hands with some students and hugs others goodbye.
“They are very good kids,” she says, beaming. “They rarely moan or complain. […] Our goal is to get them able to perform publicly after two or three years of training, and well before they get their official degree, which is granted when they complete the compulsory seven-year education.”
A fading ticket to opportunity
In recent years, the school has been suffering from precipitously declining numbers.
According to the latest statistics, from the 2010 China Acrobatics Forum, the country has 124 troupes, 12,000 professional acrobats, and 100,000 people directly involved in the industry.
Although those figures seem impressive, the state-owned school—which operates as a feeder program for the Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe—has only 20 full-time students under 15 years old.
“When I started performing, acrobatics was one of the few ways we had to see the world.”
“When I started performing, acrobatics was one of the few ways we had to see the world,” says Tong Tianshu, a fit but grizzled 34-year-old performer and coach. “Thanks to this job, I’ve visited many countries and stayed in the United States for five years. But society has changed, and now traveling and studying abroad has become common.”
Acrobatics as a passport to what lies beyond China is an outdated concept. “In the ’90s, we could easily pick the best 60 children among many candidates every year, but now we’re lucky if we get 10 new ones a year,” Tong adds.
Wang Xiao, deputy general manager of the troupe and school, says, “Even at the turn of the millennium, we had 120 professional performers. We could divide them into three groups and engage in simultaneous shows. But now we are down to 40 and struggle to even split into two groups. We have to turn down many requests to perform abroad.”
It’s a far cry from 1951, when the troupe was one of the first to be formed in the People’s Republic of China. The new government placed great emphasis on acrobatics as an emblematic art form of the nation, providing theaters for troupes in most major cities.
Chinese acrobatics, though, can trace its roots back nearly 4,000 years. The art form blossomed during the Qin and Han dynasties (221BC-AD220), evolving from a simple exhibition of skills into a refined repertory of tumbling, balancing, plate spinning, pole balancing and rope dancing, known as “The Show of One Hundred Skills.”
“But thanks to the economic development of China, families are wealthier. Most want their kids to go to university.”
“But thanks to the economic development of China, families are wealthier,” says An Ning, the troupe’s director since 1997. “Most want their kids to go to university. Acrobatic training can seem too hard, although it used to be even tougher. The one-child policy has also made it difficult to find new students.”
Coaches say many low-income families still see acrobatics as a way to have their children taken care of. “They are fed well and receive an education,” Tong says. Across China, smaller, often private troupes recruit orphaned or “left-behind” children whose parents have migrated to cities for work.
‘Smile even when the pain blinds you’
For the best acrobats, theme parks such as Disneyland pay some of the highest salaries, often more than $1,500 a month, but competition is fierce, says Shan Dan, one of the troupe’s more experienced acrobats at age 36. “Only a lucky few make it there,” he says.
Although Shan is a government-recognized “first-class performing artist,” he wouldn’t want his own children to follow in his footsteps. “I would respect his or her decision,” he says, “but I would discourage it from the bottom of my heart. I’ve suffered two severe injuries, on the knee and the lower back, and I know how tough this job is.”
If that were not deterrent enough, there’s the career span to consider. “I hope to perform until I’m 40,” Shan says. “But the older I get I have to train harder and harder to yield poorer results.” Given the shortage of new talent, older acrobats have to stretch their careers for as long as possible.
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Guo Shenyu, a 19-year-old acrobat, is suffering from a leg injury sustained during a performance. Although she is not expected to make a full recovery for a few weeks, she is back training and will be on stage in a couple of days.
“You have to be resilient, and smile even when pain blinds you.”
“We need all hands on deck,” she says, with a broad smile and a shrug. “You have to be resilient, and smile even when pain blinds you.”
After a basic lunch of vegetables, chicken, and soup, the students’ three-hour afternoon session starts at 2 pm, focusing on jumps, balance, and props. Some learn to kick bowls onto their heads. They all love juggling clubs.
Whatever the moves, the key to success is clear: repetition.
“Although we try to make shows 100% safe, people across the world love the universal art of acrobatics because it’s spectacular, exciting, unpredictable, and dangerous,” says An. “A minute on stage requires 10 years of practice and yet things can always go wrong.”
On stage and off, authorities are trying to restore acrobatics to its former glory, with new competitions such as the China International Circus Festival in the southern city of Zhuhai.
But Tong believes salaries need to improve substantially to offer a viable career.
“The training is so hard that people will be interested in acrobatics only if it can guarantee a better quality of life,” he says. “An elite sportsman can aspire to greatness, and that’s what acrobats are lacking.”
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An, the director, struggles to conceal a grimace of disappointment at his art’s flagging legacy.
“The history of acrobatics can be traced back 3,700 years,” he says with a sigh. “It’s China’s heritage, and it needs to be preserved and encouraged.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.