Meet Gulpiya Jelili, princess of the tightrope

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA -

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.

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