Gulimina Maimaiti, an ethnic Uygur woman, excels in performing the folk dances of several minority groups. She rose to fame in 2014 after she became grand champion of a TV talent show, So You Think You Can Dance. She became the first dancer from Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to hold a solo dance show at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), in Beijing. As a leading figure of Xinjiang dance, Gulimina has displayed the charm of Xinjiang through her fantastic dances.
Gulimina was born in Dushanzi District, in Karamay, a city in Xinjiang, in 1986. Xinjiang is known as an "ocean of song and dance," as many of the residents are good at singing and dancing. Gulimina displayed her talent in dancing as a child. When she was 6, she began learning to dance at a children's arts center, where she realized dancing was not easy. Why? Practicing the basic techniques, such as stretching the legs and doing the splits, was a nightmare for her. Sometimes, the practices caused so much pain in her legs that she cried and asked to go home.
Something did motivate her, however; when she was 8, she watched her classmates perform a dance, during a gala, on television. Her father asked her: "Will I see you dancing on TV one day?" Gulimina answered, "I believe I will perform my dance on TV one day. I want to be a top dancer, and I will teach kids to dance in the future." Since then, she has trained hard — and she has stood out.
Ayiguli, Gulimina's first dance teacher, put a lot of effort into helping Gulimina develop her talent, and the teacher gave her student ample opportunities to perform. Gulimina, at 10, won her first top prize, during a children's dance contest in Xinjiang. At 12, she was admitted to the middle school affiliated with Xinjiang Arts University, where she began to receive professional dance training. The training was tougher than she had experienced before. Gulimina practiced hard, even during her vacations, and she participated in many dance competitions.
In 2003, Gulimina competed in the Taoli Cup, a highly prestigious dance competition in China. Though she failed to win the top prize, she was satisfied with her performance. "I have expected to attend high-level events like the Taoli Cup. It's enough for me to be able to enter the finals," says Gulimina.
As she pursued her dream of becoming a top dancer, she spent a whole year practicing a difficult, Uygur-style dance, Girl with a Bell. In May 2006, as she was preparing to compete in the Taoli Cup, her older sister told her their father had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and he had been left in a coma. Gulimina rushed to hospital, and she stayed there and took care of her father for several days. She didn't want to think about the competition. One day, at noon, her father came out of his coma. Gulimina heard him whisper: "Gulimina, I see you dance on TV. You got a prize …" Then he slipped back into the coma. At that moment Gulimina understood what her father expected of her, so she returned to university, and practiced even harder. She trained at least 10 hours every day, and that caused her to tear several muscles in her feet. Despite the injury, she participated in the Taoli Cup, and she won second prize.
Between 2003 and 2009, Gulimina attended several international competitions. She won some prizes, and, more importantly, she gained rich experiences during those competitions.
In 2009, Gulimina began accepting dance students. "At that time, I achieved good results in many dance competitions. After I became an associate professor in the dance department of Xinjiang Arts University, I wanted to concentrate on teaching instead of competing in dance contests," she says. Under her guidance, her students won several awards in 2012, during a national professional dance competition in Hefei, in East China's Anhui Province.
In 2014, Gulimina was invited to compete on a TV talent show, So You Think You Can Dance, produced by Zhejiang television station. During her debut on the show, Gulimina impressed the judges, and viewers, with a Uygur dance. She displayed the charm of the Uygur dance through her high-level dance skills — and her infectious performance. She also performed the jazz, modern and folk dances of several minority groups, which helped her demonstrate her comprehensive dancing skills.
Jin Xing, a famous dancer, and one of the judges, said Gulimina's dance was "a textbook case of Xinjiang dance." Without a doubt, Gulimina won first prize, and the title of the most popular dancer, during the final competition of the talent show.
The next year, Gulimina performed during a solo dance show at the NCPA, in Beijing; as a result, she became the first dancer from Xinjiang to stage a solo dance show at NCPA. The show was widely considered a great success.
The year 2015 marked the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. To mark the event, Gulimina performed during a solo dance show organized by and broadcast on Xinjiang television station.
At the end of 2016, Gulimina performed the lead role in You Beautify My Life, Xinjiang's first song-and-dance film. The film told the story of dancers who pursued their dance dreams, and who devoted themselves to exploring the modernization of folk songs and dances. In the film, Gulimina performed a traditional dance, a folk dance, a contemporary dance and a modern dance, each of which embodied the excellent dance culture of an ethnic group.
In November 2021, Gulimina and her team performed the dance drama, Five Stars Rise from East, on National Treasure, a popular cultural program on CCTV 3, China Central Television's third channel. Gulimina performed the lead role, Chunjun, a princess from the western region of ancient China.
The creation of the dance drama was inspired by a great archeological discovery in 1995, when a brocade arm guard from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) was discovered in Niya Ruins, in Hotan Prefecture, in Xinjiang. The drama, which highlighted the theme of national unity, told the story of a Han general and a princess who forged a deep friendship as they experienced ups and downs together.
Gulimina and her team performed Ancient Call, part of the dance drama, during an online art show. The video of the show received nearly 1.5 million views and impressed countless netizens. The dance drama will be staged at NPCA on February 11-13.
"The dance drama is very meaningful to me. It helps me rediscover my hometown, and makes me feel more deeply that Xinjiang is the home to song and dance, and a treasure land of art. It is my first time to perform in a dance drama. I have accumulated experiences, and I have learned a lot from other dancers, and the production team, of the drama. I have also learned the history and culture behind the cultural relics, which is a meaningful experience to me as an educator," Gulimina says.
Inheriting Ethnic Culture
"Located along the ancient Silk Road, Xinjiang has a profound history of music and dance. Our folk dances are lively and enjoyable. Singing and dancing are the cultural characteristics and customs of the Uygur people, which have lasted for generations. I am willing to work hard to be a good dance teacher, so Xinjiang's ethnic culture can be transmitted to students from generation to generation, and so more people in the world will have a better understanding of Xinjiang culture and dance," Gulimina says.
Gulimina, a member of the Communist Party of China, became an associate professor with the College of Dance, Minzu University of China, in Beijing, in 2020. She mainly teaches the folk dances of several minority — including Uygur, Kazakh, Uzbek and Tajik — groups.
Gulimina is also a member of the council of the China Literary and Art Volunteers Association, a member of the council of the Xinjiang Dancers Association, and a member of the Standing Committee of the Xinjiang Youth Federation.
In 2017, she applied — and was accepted — for national-level project, subsidized by the National Social Science Fund and the China National Arts Fund, to research, advocate and inherit Uzbek traditional folk dances. The project not only enables her to preserve the precious dance forms, with modern science and technology, but also helps her improve her teaching methods.
Gulimina travels to various regions of China, to give lectures at universities and to participate in various public-welfare activities to promote Xinjiang's dances.
"It is my responsibility to inherit Xinjiang dance, and to cultivate younger generations of dancers. Xinjiang is home to song and dance. Ethnic people use songs and dances to express their lifestyles, attitudes and emotions. Song and dance is the second language to us," Gulimina says.
Although she devotes much of her time to her career, Gulimina does her best to accompany her family, especially her daughter. The stages and rehearsal halls were like "amusement parks" to her daughter when she was younger, as Gulimina often took her daughter to work.
After the COVID-19 epidemic broke out, in early 2020, Gulimina decided to offer livestreamed classes to the public. More than 1 million people have attended her 12-day livestreamed classes, and the classes have been viewed more than 20 million times. Gulimina was touched by people's passion for dance, especially the passion of children from underdeveloped regions. She hopes to offer more online classes, to encourage more people, especially children, to dance.
"I have gained a lot through dance, and I feel grateful, as dance has made me who I am. I have an excellent team of dancers, and a happy family, and all of them support and care for me. I feel contented, as they are treasures to me … I also hope to spread positive energy through dance, and to help more people in need," Gulimina says.
"While I am dedicated to inheriting and protecting traditional dance in Xinjiang, I also need to incorporate modern elements in dance to promote our dance in other parts of China, and the world. As a teacher of the College of Dance, Minzu University of China, it is my responsibility to inherit and advocate the traditional Chinese culture, and to train more excellent dancers," she concludes.
Photos Supplied by Gulimina Maimaiti
(Women of China English Monthly February 2022 issue)
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