As the brisk sound of fingers plucking the rawap, a traditional Uygur musical instrument, starts to echo across the room, 10-year-old Gulpiya Jelili flexes her foot and begins to dance along an 18-mm-diameter rope suspended in the air.
The performance is called Dawaz, or aerial tightrope walking, a traditional form of acrobatics in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The performer holds a balancing pole, tiptoes along a tightrope and undertakes movements such as walking, lying down and jumping. The more challenging the movement, the higher the performer's skill.
Dawaz has been protected by the State Council, China's Cabinet, who added it to the national list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
A regional acrobatics troupe recently visited 10 regions of Xinjiang looking for talented performers to cultivate and develop the performance art.
Jelili's tightrope walking career began in the country's only Dawaz training school in Xinjiang's Yengisar County. The school was opened by Adil Uxur, a sixth generation Dawaz performer.
Studying Dawaz is not easy, but when then 8-year-old Jelili heard about the school, she begged her mother to send her. She even threatened to stage a hunger strike if her mother refused.
To the young girl, tightrope walking was not only an amazing skill to learn, but it has also allowed her to escape the two people in her life she most disliked: her biological father who abandoned his children after divorce, and her distant step-father.
Most of Jelili's 22 fellow students also come from difficult childhoods: some were orphans, others were abandoned after their parents divorced.
"I want to provide them with a path that will lead to a good life," said Uxur.
From the moment she was accepted, the tiny, swift and determined Jelili was identified as potential key performer and given more rigorous training, according to Uxur.
Before dawn, the petite girl and her classmates do handstands on a long bench, their straightened legs leaning against the wall. They typically stay in a handstand for ten minutes, but as a key performer, Jelili must continue for an extra five minutes, causing the blue veins to appear on her temples, and the muscles of her tiny arms to shake.
Uxur has set seven world records in tightrope walking, and knows too well the risks of the performance.
"There is essentially no safety equipment in Dawaz, so every bead of sweat they shed in training is important, because more practice means less chance of falling during a performance," the coach said.
Uxur remembers Jelili falling from the rope after losing her balance as she prepared to do a split leap. She landed on cushions and was not hurt, but was frustrated with her mistake, constantly punching her fist into the cushion, he said.
"The rope is very thin, so it is inevitable that performers fall down at some stage," said Sattar, another coach at the school. "But once you master the skill, you feel at ease on the rope."
Although she has barely completed two years of training, Jelili has already performed in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and her performances have earned her the nickname "the Xinjiang princess of aerial tightrope walking."
"Even though I haven't travelled to as many places as my older teammates, I am the only person in my family who has been to these big cities," Jelili said.
In her spare time, when most teenage girls gossip about celebrities, Jelili prefers to paint about her experiences. She wants to share what she has seen outside Xinjiang with her mother and sister.
Jelili said becoming a well-known tightrope performer is not her only goal.
"When I grow up, I want to write a book about Dawaz," she said. "I will have good memories about the places I have seen, the people I have met and the jokes they told me, I think it will be fun."