Ma Li & Zhai Xiaowei

Ma Li & Zhai Xiaowei

When they first met in 2005, Zhai Xiaowei did not know that his future dance partner Ma Li did not possess her right arm. Furious that she was asking him – the then budding athlete had lost his right leg at the age of 4, from a fall off a tractor – about his lost limb and if he had considered learning how to dance, he was also intrigued when she offered him tickets to her performance a few days later.

“The girl’s dancing so electrified me that my hair seemed to stand on end,” Xiaowei had later said in an interview with China Daily. “She danced gracefully, even though she only had one arm. So, I thought, ‘That’s why she peppered me with those questions!’”

Li had lost her arm in a car accident in 1996, when she was 19. Her boyfriend then left her, and the accomplished dancer had tried to kill herself. Thankfully, she was saved by her parents. She learnt to live with her disability and operated a small bookstore. In 2001, she was invited to compete at the national special performing art competition for disabled artistes and she won the gold medal. With that motivation, Li started dancing more actively again.

Xiaowei soon followed Li’s footsteps and settled in Beijing to learn how to dance from scratch. The duo work hard and are perfectionists – for instance, they would typically practice a move incessantly until they get it right, even if it means dancing from 8am to 8pm!

In April 2007, they – the first disabled couple to enter the prestigious competition – won the silver medal in China’s 4th CCTV national dance competition and became an instant hit. Since then, they have travelled the world, frequently performing their signature dance, “Hand in Hand”. It tells the story of how a girl loses her right arm in a tragic accident. She then finds her soulmate who shares a similar fate.

Li, a torchbearer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, also founded the Beijing Oriental Cultural Media Limited in 2007, where she is now its creative director.

The pair say adversity has helped shape their characters and till today, helps them perform. They want to inspire other people with disabilities to shine on the stage too.

Watch Ma Li and Zhai Xiaowei dance here.