Meet Gulpiya Jelili, princess of the tightrope
URUMQI — As the brisk sound of fingers plucking the rawap, a traditional Uygur musical instrument, echoes across the room, 10-year-old Gulpiya Jelili flexes her foot and begins to dance along an rope 18 millimeters in diameter that’s suspended in the air.
The performance is called dawaz, or aerial tightrope walking, a traditional form of acrobatics in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. The performer holds a balancing pole, tiptoes along a rope and performs various movements, including walking, lying down and jumping.
Dawaz has been protected by the State Council, China’s Cabinet, which added it to the national list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
A regional acrobatics troupe recently visited 10 regions of Xinjiang looking for talented performers to cultivate and develop the performing art.
Jelili’s tightrope-walking career began in the country’s only dawaz training school in Xinjiang’s Yengisar county, which was opened by Adil Uxur, a sixth-generation dawaz performer.
Studying dawaz is not easy, but when Jelili heard about the school at age 8, she begged her mother to send her. She even threatened a hunger strike if her mother refused.
To the young girl, tightrope
It is inevitable that performers fall at some stage. But once you master the skill, you feel at ease on the rope.”
walking was not only an amazing skill to learn but a way to escape a difficult childhood.
Most of her 22 fellow students also come from similar circumstances: Some were orphans, others were abandoned after their parents divorced.
“I want to provide them with a path that will lead to a good life,” Uxur said.
From the moment she was accepted, the tiny, swift and determined Jelili was identified as a potential key performer and given more rigorous training, according to Uxur.
Every day before dawn, the petite girl and her classmates do handstands on a long bench, their straightened legs leaning against the wall. Most of them stay in that position for 10 minutes, but as a key performer Jelili must continue for an extra five minutes, causing blue veins to appear on her temples and making the muscles on her tiny arms shake.
Uxur has set seven world records in tightrope walking, and knows the risks well.
“There is essentially no safety equipment in dawaz, so every bead of sweat they shed in training is important, because more practice means less chance of falling during a performance,” the coach said.
Uxur remembers Jelili falling from the rope after losing her balance as she prepared to do a split leap. She landed on cushions and was not hurt, but was frustrated with her mistake, punching her fist into the cushion.
“The rope is very thin, so it is inevitable that performers fall at some stage,” said Sattar, another coach at the school. “But once you master the skill, you feel at ease on the rope.”
Although she has barely completed two years of training, Jelili has already performed in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and her performances have earned her a nickname: the Xinjiang Princess.
“When I grow up, I want to write a book about dawaz,” Jelili said. “I will have good memories about the places I have seen, the people I have met and the jokes they told me. I think it will be fun.”
Sattar, coach at a tightrope training school
Gulpiya Jelili, a 10-year-old tightrope walker, practices her skills last month at a school in Yengisar in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.