Young dancer promotes She ethnic tradition among students

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As a child, Lei Lingli loved to attend weddings because she enjoyed the convivial and joyful atmosphere with delicious food, music and dance. What impressed her the most was the custom of the bride crying, which is a tradition of the She ethnic group that Lei belongs to.

A bride usually cries for three days and nights even before the wedding ceremony starts. It's a way to express her reluctance to leave her family. A bride also sings songs to express her gratitude to the parents, thanking them for bringing her to the world and for their love and care.

"When I was a child, I was very confused about the crying brides. The wedding days are supposed to be happy. Why all the tears? Then I learned about the custom, which made me realize the uniqueness of our She people," says Lei, who was born and raised in a small village of Xiabaishi town, located at the coastal city of Ningde, Fujian province.

The She community settled in Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Anhui, and Guangdong provinces.

According to the website of the bureau of culture and tourism of Ningde, the She population has reached 200,000 there. The number of She people living in Ningde accounts for one-fourth of the total population of the ethnic group in the country.

Most residents in Lei's village are She people. Raised by a single mother and her grandmother, Lei grew up practicing She songs and dances. Lei also learned to speak the ethnic language with her mother and grandmother before she was taught to speak Mandarin in school.

Now, the 27-year-old is dedicated to promoting and preserving the culture and tradition of her ethnic group by managing her own dance studio. Launched a year ago, the dance studio, named Hanier Dance Art, teaches children, from 6 to 16 years old, songs, dances and language.

"Both my mother and grandmother are great singers and dancers. They sing at home anytime they feel like singing, such as when they cook, wash clothes or do embroidery," says Lei. "Singing and dancing are part of their lives."

The songs of the She people are usually about their daily lives, such as working on the farmland and picking tea. Their dances are choreographed for special occasions, such as those worshipping their gods and ancestors, and weddings and funerals.

At the age of 14, Lei joined the local She Song and Dance Troupe, a performing arts group founded in 1988 that highlights the ethnic group's music and dance. It had been her dream to become a dance teacher since then, so Lei studied choreography at the Beijing Dance Academy for three months in 2018. After returning to her hometown, Lei prepared to launch her dance studio. Its name, Hanier Dance Art, came from She language, in which shanha is what She people call themselves and nier is a nickname for young girls in the culture.

"To my surprise, many children joined my dance studio and over half of them are not from the She ethnic group," says Lei, who now works with five teachers and teaches over 100 children.

"The local government has been doing a great job protecting and promoting She culture, so I guess that's why people let their children learn She music and dance as a way of art education," she adds.

Lei says many children of the ethnic group cannot speak their language, which has no written form, making it difficult to pass down.

"When we teach the children to sing folk songs, we teach them to learn the lyrics first. We translate the lyrics into Mandarin and once they understand the lyrics, they become interested and learn fast," Lei says.

Lei is keen to promote the ethnic culture. In February, Lei joined a fashion show on She culture as a director. Besides choreography, she works with local inheritors of intangible heritage to showcase traditional clothes and accessories of the ethnic group. The traditional clothing has embroidered images of the phoenix. There are subtle differences in the dresses of the She people in different regions. The fabrics, colors, shapes, patterns and craftsmanship all carry the aesthetics of the She people's worship of the phoenix totem.

"The clothes and accessories, just like the songs and dance pieces, are an extension of the nonverbal stories we share about the She people," says Lei.

Chen Wenting, 23, met Lei during the fashion show in February and now is a teacher in Lei's dance studio.

"I was always interested in music and dance of the She people, so I taught myself to sing and dance since I was a teenager," says Chen, who is an ethnic Han native of Ningde.

"Lei is finding beautiful and innovative ways to represent and honor the She ethnic group," Chen says.

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