Exceptional beauty, extraordinary grace and expert artistry are qualities that have taken Tai Lihua to dance the great stages of the world in more than 40 countries. If that were not exceptional enough, this is: Tai Lihua is completely deaf.
At age seven, a few minutes after she first entered the doors of a school for the hearing impaired, Tai experienced what would prove a pivotal moment. While her teacher pounded a foot drum upon the floor, she felt the vibrations radiate through her small body. This was a sound that could be felt - and it was rhythmic. Tai recalls bending to touch the rough wood planks with her fingertips, her face hot with excitement. "I love it," she signed to her teacher.
And she made a career of it. Today the adult Tai is the star performer with China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe and she is the only Chinese dancer to be featured at New York's Carnegie Hall and at Milan's Theatre Museum at La Scala.
On the evening of September 18, 2000, Tai performed for a New York audience that included the President of the United Nations General Assembly and UN envoys from 43 nations. During a lasting standing ovation, some of these officials were among the many who spontaneously moved to the stage to briefly grasp Tai's hand and convey in touch their appreciation to the deaf dancer.
Tai is today known as the "Peacock Fairy" for her heart-stopping rendition of
"The Soul of the Peacock." She first discovered the arrangement on television as performed by a preceding famous female dancer of China, Yang Liping. On first viewing Tai was overwhelmed and driven to master the movement. But because she could neither hear the music nor had access to an instructor for the piece, she studied videotapes and relied upon her own interpretation and sense of the melody.
When Yang Liping had occasion to observe as Tai performed the dance, the master dancer was so impressed she set aside her long-felt disdain for imitators and offered to coach the younger artist.
Now when the curtain rises, the lights come up and the music fades in, there is Tai in the elegant flowing dress signature to the piece. She moves with her impressionistic interpretation of that precise-stepping and extraordinary land bird. As if in a silent wood, on a green lawn, or by a gurgling brook, with expression of face and body she captivates with physical interpretation and spirit.
The "Peacock" was just one arrangement she performed in October 2002 at the Sixth World Assembly of Disabled People's International held in Sapporo, Japan. The audience was made up of attendees from over 100 countries and regions with performances specially presented by the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe. Tai's enchanting dancing again brought forth standing ovations and earned her and her troupe the designation "image ambassadors of the 600 million disabled people in the world."
While "The Soul of the Peacock" is now perhaps her signature piece, it is but one of many choreographed movements. Her repertoire is diverse with characters vividly depicted through costume, face, body and movement. Mastering this art would come only after overcoming her humble beginnings and hard adversity.
Tai was born into a modest family in Yichang City, Hubei Province. She was an especially lovely and intelligent little girl and her parents had high hopes. She had a sweet voice and learned to speak very early. But at the age of two she was stricken with hyperpyrexia and permanently entered a world of silence. Although without hearing, Tai's spirit prevailed.
With the support of family and the added asset of the school for the deaf and mute, she would excel academically and gain confidence. In her silent world she managed to cultivate her sense of independence, competence and self-discipline. And it paid off.
Tai was later admitted to the Art Design Department of the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, a school with no exceptions for the hearing impaired. While her classmates would listen to the teacher, Tai relied on her eyes. She would look to the blackboards, read the textbooks and closely watch the teacher's mouth. Former classmates recount her poise, her discipline, her long hours of devotion - and her outstanding grades.
Later, with the help of an association for the disabled people, Tai began her training as a dancer. Despite some family and friends who suggested to Tai that it may be too late to become a professional dancer, she was determined.
That determination would be physically manifest. During her first summer of dance training, Tai's mother took notice of her daughter's habit of always wearing slacks, never skirts. While Tai napped one day, her mother rolled up a leg of her daughter's trousers. She was shocked to see the severity of the bruising and distressed to the point of tears. But Tai said simply, "I love dancing, so to me this is not pain." And she forged ahead.
Perhaps it is this early hardship that brings what seems a never-ending smile to Tai's lips as she enjoys her fame and success today. Certainly the extraordinary difficulties and extraordinary reward have served to form a sturdy philosophical foundation. Tai wrote: "Everyone, in fact, is destined for both success and trials. Of these we can not always choose. But we can choose our attitude towards life. We should set eyes on the better aspects and confront even the hard with a joyful and gracious mind. This is what I have realized from my life."
Tai toured throughout the US, Asia and Europe, including a notable appearance in Milan at the Theatre Museum at La Scala in October 1992, where she was the only disabled dancer to perform at multi-national goodwill gala that year. At the event, which brought together some of the world's top dance performers, her "Color Sculpture of Dunhuang" drew a long-lasting ovation and a warm hug and an exclamation of "Wonderful!" from the art director and stage supervisor of the event.
When not dancing or practicing, Tai's professional life includes serving as Vice President of the China Special Art Association.
(China Pictorial April 22, 2005)