Dancing in Silence
A hearing-impaired performer finds expression through dance
By Nancy Li
performance artists nervously anticipate the eruption of
applause at the end of a show. In many cases, this is the first
time artists can truly gauge the success of their efforts. Tai
Lihua is no different in this way from any other performer, but
there is one exception: She cannot hear the applause; she can
only feel it.
As Tai Lihua was growing up, she had no idea that dance would
become her career. For a hearing- impaired person, dance was a
"At two years old, I got sick and lost my hearing. I had no
knowledge of music at the time, let alone dancing," recalls Tai,
communicating through sign language. She became aware of her
disability while playing a game with a group of friends." The
game involved trying to recognize your partner by voice. My
other friends happily exchanged places to find their partner,
but I just stood still. From that point, I knew they had a
sensory ability that I didn't have," says Tai.
Tai soon learned from her mother that her ears were just an
ornament. However, supported by her parents' expectations, she
didn't focus on her deficiency and others' contemptuous looks.
She became stronger instead.
Dance: The heart's silent language
When she was seven years old, Tai Lihua enrolled in a primary
school for deaf children in her hometown of Yichang, Hubei
Province. There she discovered her passion for dance. "We had a
special class," Tai says. "The teacher delivered the rhythm to
us by pounding on a drum placed on the wooden floor. I was
overwhelmed by the rhythmic vibrations and bent over to the
floor, feeling it spread throughout my body." For the first
time, Tai understood the meaning of rhythm.
Tai Lihua quickly found she had a flair for dancing. Although
she didn't have any dance basics, the chemistry between dance
and her was apparent from her first class. "As long as the
rhythms were in my heart, I could dance anything," she says.
Everyday after school, Tai would squeeze in time to practice.
Fearing that her mother would discover the bruises that often
resulted from her training, she wore long pants even in summer.
"It was my way of communicating with the world. No matter what
happened, I wouldn't, and still won't, give up dancing," says
Tai. "In my mind, dance is a visible, colorful embodiment of
music. I can express myself through dancing," she continues.
The Spirit of the Peacock
"Among all the dances I have ever performed, my favorite one,"
shares Tai, "is 'The Spirit of the Peacock'," which was
choreographed and first performed by Yang Liping in 1986. "I was
enthralled by her performance when I watched it on TV, and I
couldn't help mimicking her." Unexpectedly, it was this dance,
which had already brought Yang fame that also changed Tai's
In 1991, the Hubei Province Disabled People Association
scheduled a performance in Japan, and with them 15-year-old Tai
arrived in Beijing. She was told that a few directors from the
China Disabled People's Performing Troupe wanted to evaluate her
dancing ability. Tai chose to dance "The Spirit of the Peacock"
which she had been practicing repeatedly.
By the time she had finished, everyone had surrendered to her
riveting performance. "By reading their lips, I knew I had
passed their exam," says Tai. Though she knew this was an
opportunity to fulfill her dreams, Tai also knew that her
participation forecast the start of more tests. Tai joined the
troupe, performing "The Spirit of the Peacock" as her signature
every act and inscribed every rhythm in my heart," says Tai.
Working at a snail's pace, she managed to remember about 1,000
rhythms precisely as part of the eight-minute dance. Even Yang
Liping, the original "Peacock" dancer, has said that, if faced
with the same disability, she would not be able to perform the
dance as well as Tai.
Now, 28-year-old Tai has performed in over 30 countries. She is
the only Chinese dancer to have performed at both Carnegie Hall
in New York and La Scala in Milan. Wherever the troupe goes, she
is the most welcomed performer.
"No matter where we arrive, we are warmly welcomed. When we step
on the stage, what we eager to reveal is our heart, not just our
art," Tai says.
Recognition of Tai's achievements in dance has come from around
the world. In October 2002, at the Disabled People's
International Conference in Japan, Tai was honored as the
official representative of the world's disabled population. The
following year, Tai's performance created a sensation in Brunei
and was received by the Brunei queen.
In March 2003, the troupe headed for Poland, where Tai received
an ovation for her "Peacock" dance. When she returned to the
greenroom to change clothes, the MC followed and told her that
the entire audience, including the Polish president and his
wife, were still applauding and wished she would out again to
meet them. As she had already changed clothes for next
performance, the MC had to return and told the audience that the
performer was hearing-impaired and couldn't hear their applause.
"I was told that many of the people present cried when they
learned that I couldn't hear their applause," recalls Tai, who
believes that the audience's tears were not only for her, but
also for the world's 600 million disabled people.
The honors Tai has received over her career have never satisfied
her longing to take part in a performance created entirely by
artists with disabilities. "I crave to perform a dance totally
choreographed by disabled people, not just the movements, but
the music as well. I know there are many disabled people who
have talents in the arts. There should be a stage for them,"
says Tai. In September, Tai came close to realizing this wish,
performing in the "Thousand-Hand Bodhisattva" dance with
nineteen other hearing-impaired women at the closing ceremonies
of the Athens Paralympic Games.
Another love discovered
Last year, Tai ended seven years of courtship and married a
computer engineer named Li Chun.
The couple met when Tai went to visit a relative who happened
not to be in. While she was deciding whether to return home or
continue waiting, a young man next door invited her to rest at
his home. They talked a whole afternoon, writing on a piece of
Li told Tai that her hearing deficiency is not obstacle to their
relationship. Yet for Tai, being with Li was a challenge. Li was
not discouraged by her dodging or by opposition from his own
family and continued his pursuit. Faced with Li's devotion, Tai
couldn't escape any more.
One night, she invited him to see her perform. She had never
told him that she could dance. While on stage, she saw tears in
his eyes. At that point, they understood that their love was
When asked if she has any regrets or bitterness over her
disability, Tai seems puzzled. "Why must people keep bitter
memories? I have not forgotten them intentionally, but I never
took them to heart."
"You cannot choose what life you will have," Tai says, her
fingers dancing, "but you can choose your outlook towards life."