Mao’s Last Dancer: Li Cunxin

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Ballet has been a part of my life for eleven years now. Whilst this is the first year when I have stopped classes, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a good dance.* So this book – the autobiography of Li Cunxin’s journey through ballet from a young age – resonated strongly with me. As in it brought me to tears. Several times.

The haunting tale of Cunxin’s life, of growing up in communist China and being classically trained in a brutal way, is one that will stay with me for years. I learned in several schools myself, and met with diverse ways of teaching that often seemed harsh to me. But after reading this book, I realised that no matter now crazy/grumpy/stressed my teacher seemed on the dress rehearsal, that was nothing. And I should really stop complaining.

This book was gorgeous. I read it in one sitting – I actually did not move for the three hours it took to finish, and I came away a wreck. This is what happens, every day. The beautiful art form of Ballet is put down to a form of torture in the minds of poor children, every day.

And I’m not just talking about Communist China. Ballet teachers are stereo-typically known to be harsh (and they have to be – how else are they going to get eleven year olds to get up and practice that tendu until it is perfection?? Most eleven year olds aren’t that motivated!). But there are some worse than others.

I am thankful that I live in a country where the type of teaching that Li experienced is (technically) illegal. I never faced this sort of thing. I never faced anything remotely close to what he experienced. (Okay, there was that creepy jazz teacher – but he was fired after a week by the school and we were all apologised to. So there’s that.)

I read this book way back in April or something, and I still remember thickly every detail and how real this book is. It’s not just a story; it actually happened. I guess it’s a heavy reminder of how careful we have to be.

Ballet is not a torture regime. It’s hard. It takes dedication. But it should not be taught to kids in this way.

*I still watch ballet videos occasionally. And obsess over random ballerina pics on instagram. SSHHHHH.

I FEEL LIKE I’M JUST REPEATING MYSELF NOW SO I’LL STOP. BUT SERIOUSLY. THIS BOOK MADE ME REALLY PASSIONATE.

5/5 stars.

The 2009 film is good, but the book is better (as in most cases). I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK. If only to learn what China was like at that time.

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