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“The music is in my heart”

Even as a child, the young dancer Tianjiao Zhang from the Chinese city of Harbin knew there was only one career for her, despite her profound hearing loss. She has been supported in this endeavor by hearing aids from Sonova brand Phonak, which the dancer has been wearing since early childhood.

The dancers stand still in a line, only the first one is visible. Suddenly they all spread their arms out until they form a circle, with gold extensions glittering on their fingers. This configuration is known as “1000 hand Guanyin”; the arms sway to and fro until the circle dissolves and the dancers whirl in their gold embroidered costumes over the open-air stage at a lake near Harbin in the far north of China.

One of the dancers is the 20-year-old Tianjiao Zhang, known by her nickname Jiaojiao. Even as a small girl, Jiaojiao knew there was only one career for her: dancing. Hearing aids from Sonova brand Phonak, which she has worn since the age of five, have helped her realize this dream. Jiaojiao was born with profound hearing loss. “Lots of people used to tell me it would prevent me from becoming a dancer,” she says. “But my teacher and especially my mother have always believed in me.”

This support, plus her considerable talent and iron will, formed the basis of Jiaojiao's success. She works as a freelance dancer with different professional troupes – in spite of her hearing loss. The Guanyin performance, which Jiaojiao is part of on this evening, is a traditional Chinese choreographic sequence of international repute. Guanyin is the God of mercy, compassion and love in Chinese Buddhism. Her many arms symbolize her ability to help people everywhere.

Jiaojiao loves these traditional choreographies just as much as the global modern dancing, which she likes to do when competing. Even as a teenager, she was winning prizes at national and international competitions. Only a few of her trophies fit on the desk in the small apartment Jiaojiao shares with her mother in downtown Harbin. Aged 16, she won a competition in the Ukraine where she was the only participant with hearing loss representing China. When she was 17, Jiaojiao won a very popular contest in Chinese television featuring the country’s brightest talent, when she performed a flowing and expressive dance during which she held her hand to her ear like a shell. The jury was deeply impressed by Jiaojiao’s first-rate performance, especially given her hearing loss.

Jiaojiao has worked extremely hard for her success. As a child, she learned to dance, hear and speak all at the same time. Her ballet training was a big challenge, as it is painful at a young age to open the joints for the more demanding movements. “I was determined to succeed. My goal was to get better and better,” recalls Jiaojiao. Nowadays, she can smile when she talks about that time. “Jiaojiao used to cry every day. Then one day she looked at me and there were no tears in her eyes. From that moment there has been no stopping her,” says Jinhui Cao, Jiaojiao’s first dance teacher. That was a touching moment for Cao, as she realized the little dancer was going to make it. Cao recognized the girl’s talent for dancing at an early age. She practiced with her and spoke slowly with plenty of gestures, always looking for eye contact. “Jiaojiao was my first student with hearing loss and she became like a daughter to me,” says Cao.

When Jiaojiao was ten, she moved to Beijing with her mother Wei Liu to attend a high school specializing in dance and one of China's best dance academies. “I've always wanted to support my daughter and be there for her. That’s why I looked for a job in Beijing – I can manage wherever I go,” says Liu. Jiaojiao’s mother hardly ever misses one of her daughter's performances.

Wei Liu had a hearing aid made for her daughter as soon as possible. “At the start she would always take it out. She thought it was a toy,” recalls Wei Liu. Now Jiaojiao uses Phonak Naída™ hearing aids and has no trouble communicating. The first time Jiaojiao was able to hear was an elating experience. “It took time to distinguish between all the noises.” Now she knows the sound of the rain and can even identify her mother’s footsteps.

When studying new dances, Jiaojiao listens to the accompanying music every morning and evening. After a while, she learns to associate the music with the dance. “My heart beats with the rhythm when I feel music,” she says. “I become one with the music, it’s in my heart.” Jiaojiao likes melancholy pop songs and sings along to them. Sometimes she improvises a dance for the songs and on occasion they move her to tears.

In addition to her work as a freelance dancer in various troupes, Jiaojiao teaches ballet to children. “I love teaching children and encouraging them. My dream is to have my own dance school one day. Dancing makes me happy and I want to pass this on,” she says smiling. Today she is teaching an 8-year-old who is accompanied by her grandmother. The girl, who has normal hearing, places her leg on the wooden ballet bar. Jiaojiao stretches her back by gently pressing it to the side, laughing as she does so. “My granddaughter loves this teacher and the way she teaches,” says the grandmother.

Jiaojiao often incorporates dance movements into her gestures and language. “Dancing comes naturally to me. When I sometimes have difficulty finding the right words, I use my body to express myself.” Jiaojiao turns her upper body to the side and stretches her arm out, extending her fingers towards the ceiling. Then she sinks down, leaps from the floor of the bright training room and glides for a moment through the air, her left arm stretched out above her. She lands gently, relaxes her joints, laughs and prepares for her next pirouette.