Modern dance traces painful history of beauty

Wen Wei Dance Company uses the Chinese practice of binding feet as a starting point in their contemporary dance piece Unbound. The modern dancers perform Feb. 25 at the Port Theatre. - Photo contributed
Wen Wei Dance Company uses the Chinese practice of binding feet as a starting point in their contemporary dance piece Unbound. The modern dancers perform Feb. 25 at the Port Theatre.
— image credit: Photo contributed

Their parents thought they were doing what was best for their daughters.

But they set them up for a lifetime of pain and captivity.

A contemporary dance company from Vancouver looks at the cultural and historical significance of bound feet, a Chinese tradition rarely practiced today, and the often painful lengths people will go to achieve society’s beauty ideal.

Wen Wei Dance Company performs the piece Saturday (Feb. 25) at the Port Theatre.

Foot binding began when girls were between two and five years old. Their feet would be cleaned and their toenails trimmed, before their toes bent back toward their heel, breaking the tiny digits.

Then a family member or professional foot binder – mothers were likely to feel sympathy for their daughter’s cries of pain – would break the arch, further bending the foot toward the heel. The broken feet were wrapped tightly in place and the girls were forced to walk, using their body weight to crush their tiny feet.

Small feet were prized as a status symbol to show that the family was wealthy enough for the wife not to work. Poorer families participated in foot binding to make their daughters more appealing to wealthy suitors.

“Most parents wanted to give their daughters a good life,” said Wen Wei Wang, founder of the company and choreographer of Unbound.

“They didn’t realize how painful it was.”

Aside from the physical deformity and infection resulting from the practice, women with bound feet were essentially held in captivity, barely able to walk and wholly dependent on their husbands.

While the Chinese practice is derided, other cultures participate in excruciatingly painful procedures in the pursuit of beauty. In Western culture, women undergo plastic surgery and totter around on sky-high heels to make themselves more attractive.

“It’s painful, in a way,” Wang said. “It’s so hard to walk; it’s so hard to stand there for hours.”

Even in dance, classical ballerinas cram their feet into narrow pointe shoes to perform.

“It’s not just about Chinese history,” Wen said.

He choreographed Unbound in 2006, winning a national award and touring across the country. Two of the original dancers from the 2006 production perform in Nanaimo, with four more experienced dancers from Wen’s company. He is stage managing the performance.

He said the piece was selected for recognition for not only its universal message but also its physical demands of dancers.

“It’s beautiful to watch,” Wen said. “It’s a nice dance piece.”

Prior to the performance of Unbound, the lobby of the Port Theatre will feature a Chinese market, with vendors selling goods and services, shoes, costumes and traditional elements from China Art Union. The dance begins at 8 p.m.

Tickets $35; $31/members; $15/students. Please call 250-754-8550 or visit www.porttheatre.com.

For more information on the weekend’s events, please visit www.crimsoncoastdance.org.


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