I almost didn’t check Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao’s Last Dancer out from the library.
Something about the cover didn’t appeal to me, and I also thought I would need to build significant background knowledge with my son before I could even share the book with him. He has never heard of Mao or Communism, and trying to explain even the most basic political ideas or systems to him is very challenging. He has only been in America speaking English for three years. He simply doesn’t have the breadth of vocabulary to talk about politics, social systems, or governments.
But while this book resonates more for readers who understand the significance of the setting and context, it’s not necessary to have any background knowledge to read and enjoy this beautiful book. (There is one page of back matter in the book, an explanation written in language children can understand “About Li’s China.” I wish I had read this page to my son BEFORE we read the story!)
This is the true story of Li Cunxin, who grew up in extreme poverty in a large family in rural China. He always dreamed of escape, of adventure, of being able to experience the wider world, and when he was selected by government officials to move to Beijing and train as a ballet dancer, he found an opportunity. He did not see his family again for many years. The story focuses on his training and development as a dancer, the ways that he expressed himself through his dance, and his loneliness and longing for home. There is also a significant theme about the power of story, as Li carries with him stories told by his father and feels empowered by the stories told by his dance teachers.
I have never seen Li Cunxin dance, though it’s clear from his professional experiences and accolades that he is a great dancer. What I do know after reading this book is that he is a tremendous writer. This is a gorgeously written and crafted story. It’s really an achievement to manage to condense a large, complicated, interesting life story to a particular theme (home, where it is, how we carry it within us) and to convey that theme in such a powerful way.
Anne Spudvilas’s art is so evocative and conveys such emotion.
There is also a movie about Li Cunxin’s life, Mao’s Last Dancer, and a book written for adults with the same title.