In a red robe and ferocious Nuo mask with popping-eyes and a long chin, Huang Jinhong moves among a group of dancers to the clanging of gongs.
Huang, aged 10, is a pupil of Fengquan Elementary School in Shangli County, in east China's Jiangxi Province. The Nuo Opera, a religious ritual to ward off evil spirits, has been practiced here for more than 1,000 years. Every week, he practices for four hours.
"We only rest for five minutes before proceeding to the next practice session," said the boy. "The most difficult part for me is the spinning, because I can never remember how many circles I should spin for."
Minister of Education Chen Baosheng recently said that the government will bring opera, traditional dance and calligraphy into campuses, and Huang is among more than 170 students in this school who take part in weekly classes.
The Nuo ritual has been practiced for thousands of years and involves sacrifices and ceremonies in tribute to ancestors, gods and goddesses, while exorcising demons. It spread among people of various ethnicities along the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys and southwestern areas. Nuo rituals were widely performed at Lunar New Year holidays to expel evil spirits.
Accompanied by drum and gong, Nuo performers with whips, dance in black, white or red masks bearing various expressions: amiable, ferocious or fearful. In recent decades the ceremony has become little more than a theatrical performance.
Jiangxi is famous for its variety of Nuo opera. Wherever there is a performance in an outlying village, farmers may trek dozens of kilometers along hillside paths to watch. Though some elderly folks are still in awe of the Nuo dancing "gods," few today fully understand the ritual.
The Fengquan Elementary School started teaching its pupils the Nuo dance in 2002. Teachers have written textbooks about Nuo culture and organized students to make Nuo masks. They also invested in Nuo costumes, masks and instruments, taking students to museums on the Nuo culture.
Huang started learning the Nuo dances only half a year ago.
"I play the Second King in the ritual," Huang said, referring to the god in charge of floods. "I mainly dance in the middle of the troupe."
Huang first got to know Nuo Opera through his uncle, who plays a minor character in a local troupe. The boy said he loves the dance because "it is very good exercise."
"I have to squat, and I put my sword on my shoulder a lot," he said. "Right now I can only perform with my sword, but I will learn how to use the ax next."
Xiao Fu plays Nezha, the Third Lotus Prince. Xiao said they have not only performed locally, but further afield in Jiangxi, in schools, temples and on stage.
"We perform on lunar holidays," Xiao said. "For example, this year, we performed on Lantern Festival."
Each performance lasts about three minutes, but it can be a lot of effort for a child. Huang said he sweats a lot after a performance, but is very happy because "not everyone in the school can perform."
"Even though all the pupils in the school practice every week, only the 25 best are picked out to perform in front of people," Huang said proudly.
In the past few years, students at the school have won wide acclaim for their performances. In 2011, for example, the little performers won an award at an evening gala in Pingxiang City, which administers the county. In 2013, the school was honored as a pilot area for the "excellent" culture in schools program.
Xu Qifa, school president, said that long practice has instilled Nuo knowledge in students.
"I believe that with our efforts, the Nuo culture will be passed on and gain more recognition," Xu said.