Every weekend over the past few months, Guan Yu and his wife Zhang Ping have been busy helping their 18 ballet students, all girls from Duancun village, rehearse the Dance of the Four Little Swans.
They have been rehearsing the routine on a newly built stage in the village and will perform on Sept 28, their first time to face an audience on stage.
"Previously, we only practiced in the classroom and we were afraid the girls may feel uncomfortable on stage," says Guan, perspiring in the scorching noonday sun. "The girls will dance in a group, and it is important for each of them to become familiar with their position on stage."
Guan and Zhang, both teachers from the department of ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy, have been teaching the children, who had never before danced ballet, since February.
|Guan Yu from the Beijing Dance Academy gives a ballet class to rural girls in Duancun village in Hebei province.
Before then, the couple usually spent one day of their weekend teaching at a college and the other day visiting their parents.
Their weekend routine changed when Guan was recommended to the Hefeng Art Foundation program. The couple now devotes two-thirds of their weekend to teaching students in Duancun, a town a three-hour drive from Beijing.
"I was thrilled upon first hearing the idea," Guan recalls. "Because my biggest wish is to teach children in the rural Yunnan province, where my wife's hometown is, after retirement. It's just that everything is happening 20 years earlier than I expected."
Guan's hometown is also in Hebei, four hours' drive from where he is currently teaching. "Teaching them about ballet has nothing to do with making them good performers," Guan says. "We teach rural children about art, and help build their confidence, especially for girls. This is vitally important."
Anxin county (where the village is located) is home to around 40,000 people, but has only three private training centers for the arts according to local parents. It took quite some time for Guan and his wife to find a proper classroom for the ballet class.
During the first month of ballet classes Guan had to try hard not to become agitated as parents and teachers swarmed into the borrowed classroom without taking their shoes off.
He spent weeks teaching his young students two things: Take your shoes off before stepping into the dancing room and do your hair up properly.
"Learning arts starts with keeping neat and beautiful habits," he says.
Two months later, most girls have learned to do up their hair properly and put their shoes neatly in order outside the classroom before entering.
The habit has now rubbed off on visitors to the dance classroom, who also neatly place their shoes at the door before entering.