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Circus School Puts Kids Through Hoops

Zhang Yide, 13, attends Wuqiao Big World Acrobatic Art School, a private acrobatic school in Wuqiao County of Hebei Province, the "cradle of the circus" of both China and the world.

Getting up at 5:30 in the morning, Zhang starts one and a half hours of dawn training before he can wash his face, brush his teeth and eat breakfast.

Jogging, headstands and sleeping on an "empty bed" (two benches, one at his head and the other at his feet, with his trunk suspended in air) are his dawn routine. For Zhang, these practices only lay a foundation. Three harder activities await.

The school arranges three professional circus training sessions per day for Zhang and his fellow students. The first falls after breakfast and his 50-minute Chinese course, the second follows his precious one and a half hour rest that includes lunch, and the third comes after supper.

His training coaches beat his buttocks with a stick if he gets lazy. Though beating bruises his buttocks, he won't cry unless the coach is more than usually harsh to him. He has been here for three years of training. He also never cries when the coaches tweak his ears, a common occurrence.

Chinese and math are required subjects for Zhang. His teachers are part-timers, but acrobatic training is more important to him than academics. Faced with long-lasting tough training every day, he doesn't worry whether his academic studies are adequate.

The one and a half hour noon break is Zhang's main leisure time. "This is the only time in the day for us to play and have some fun," Zhang told China Daily.

More than 40 students in Zhang's school aged 7 to 18 live the same life and learn the same acrobatic skills.

Dong Lifang, 34, president of Zhang's school, says most parents realize the rigors of acrobatic training but send their only child here hoping the skills can help the child make a living, since their child seems to show little interest in academic studies in regular school.

After four years of training, Dong said, most students will graduate and join a local small-scale circus troupe. Only a few will advance into the nearby Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School, one of the four best acrobatic schools in China, with 320 students and 80 professional teachers.

Besides schools, quite a number of students learn acrobatics in local circus troupes. These troupes perform at home and abroad, while training younger members.

Hometown of acrobatics

Wuqiao County, the hometown of Chinese acrobatics, has more than 40 acrobatic schools with over 20 students each. With approximately 100 circus troupes in the county, the number of acrobatic actors and learners combined can reach 20,000. They comprise a 14th of the county's population.

Li Xining, vice chairman of the China Acrobats Association (CAA), told China Daily: "Acrobatic school education has developed leaps and bounds recently."

Nowadays, Li says, there are three main ways to learn acrobatics. First is belonging to an acrobatic family where parents teach their children; second is joining professional acrobatic troupes where veteran actors teach youngsters; and third is enrolling in an official or private acrobatic school. All three coexist, she said.

Though people once considered acrobatics only as training, "acrobatic education" was put on the agenda by circus professionals and experts in the 1980s. That's when the first acrobatic schools were founded to replace the widespread traditional apprenticeship system.

But even today these schools have no textbooks to help their learning. According to Wuqiao official Xing Puzhong, the draft of the first dedicated textbook has been finished by Wuqiao Acrobatic Art School and is undergoing final revision before publication.

Though acrobatics has entered the secondary education system, few experts had dreamed of pushing this form of art into higher education.

But quite a number of artists from the fields of dance, music and theatre have made formal acrobatic education a hot topic.

Experts interested in raising acrobatics to a higher level have tried to establish an academy of acrobatics in China. They hope to make acrobatics as important an artistic type as music, dance and drama. It is anything but easy.

What heartens the experts now is the pioneering opening last year of a junior college class in acrobatics at Beijing Normal University with the aid of CAA.

And soon the first theoretic reflection and systematic summary of acrobatics, On Acrobatic Art, will be published by Peking University. As author and CAA vice-chairman Bian Faji, said: "Acrobatics has the opportunity to be widely accepted by college students, just like music and dance."

(China Daily November 11, 2005)

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