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UPDATED: September 13, 2013 Web Exclusive
Audio: Dream a Little Dream
By Chen Ran

For more photos please click here, video here

While most children spent the last weekend of the summer holidays having fun, a group of ballet pupils in Duancun Township in north China's Hebei Province were busy training.

The girls, aged between 7 and 13, will perform at the inauguration ceremony of their new school campus on September 28.

Covering an area of 20,000 square meters, the new campus will converge three local elementary schools into one, and in the process it will benefit some 1,000 pupils.

Li Feng, the founder of the Beijing-based Hefeng Art Foundation, has been working on the new campus since 2011. Li Feng says he has loved the arts since he was a child, and he believes strongly in their power. When he created the Hefeng Art Foundation it was the country's first private foundation aiming to provide arts education and promotion.

One of Li's projects offers free arts classes – including classes in ballet, musical instruments, drama, choir singing and painting – to local students in Duancun Township every weekend as a complement to the school curriculum. Before March this year, no arts classes were available for around 600 local pupils due to the lack of teachers.

"I think the arts are particularly useful and helpful in helping with poverty alleviation in developing countries like China, which has a large rural population. I think the arts are a kind of social remedy and tool that can be used to fight against poverty," Li said.

"People in Duancun Township are not worried about clothes, food, houses and transport, because they've already have all of that. The problem is they lack confidence. Where does confidence and optimism towards the future, society and the people around them come from? Nowhere," he said.

"The arts have the power to help them gain confidence, because the arts have a special capability to help society," he added.

In June 2012, the Hefeng Art Foundation launched the country's first ballet training center for children in rural areas with the help of the National Ballet of China and the Beijing Dance Academy. Their first ballet class took place in March of this year. Several artists from well respected national-level arts institutions in Beijing were invited to the program as volunteer teachers and they come to Duancun every weekend to offer free classes.

The ballet pupils are rehearsing Lotus Breeze. The main props for the dance are artificial lotus leaves, but since lotus is one of the local specialties, it seems the dance has specially been designed for the girls of Duancun.

Li is very proud of the ballet class. "Since the 15th of March, when the first ballet class opened, the girls have changed a lot. Their skills, look and temperament are all going through a transformation!" he said.

Li attributes these changes to joint efforts by the ballet pupils, their parents and the volunteer teachers.

Dongdi Elementary School pupil Li Ziyi is in the fifth grade and has studied folk dance for two years. Now she is the lead dancer of the class. She attends every class regardless of any injuries or set back. Before studying ballet, she dreamed of being a painter.

"For me, ballet can change my life, my ideals, my temperament and my soul," she said. "I dream of performing one day at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. It is ballet that fuels my dreams."

"Actually, there are only two choices for life: either bitter or sweet. The difference is the order - bitter first sweet later or vice versa. I choose the first," she added.

Li's mother Feng Shuying thinks her daughter has gone through immense change after learning ballet.

"She is more capable than she was before. The way she walks looks better than before. Before she slouched while walking. Ballet makes her look elegant. I had no idea of how much she liked dancing. Now I can tell that she really loves it," Feng said.

The mother is very supportive of her daughter's dream of dancing at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing .

"I'm glad I can know what she aspires to. She has ambition. Let's see how far she can get. We are definitely supporting her," Feng added. "She has been born in a better time than we were. We didn't have the chance to learn any of the arts. She has the chance, and we will support her."

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