He’s been upside down for close to 10 minutes now, arms out, legs spread lithely in a downwards 'V', a little boy balanced only on his head.
Occasionally he teeters, but his round face remains set in concentration, staring intently at a digital watch on the floor a foot in front of his eyes. The seconds tick away. This is how 12-year-old Song Bufan spends his days at Wuqiao Acrobatics School, in a dusty town in rural China famous as the birthplace of acrobatics.
There is no coach watching over him, forcing him to train. His classmates are fooling around behind him. "Are you enjoying it?" we ask him. "Yes," he replies with an upside-down-grin. I can't believe him. "He will be the poorest kid in the class," our translator observes. "The hopes of his family will be resting on his shoulders." Or head, as the case may be.
In China, acrobatics is a career path. Children's destinies are determined at an early age: if they're bright, they'll go to school. If not they'll be sent into farms, factories - or the gruelling regime to become an acrobat begins.
Song Bufan is one of 180 kids at this school, the youngest just six. Life is basic. We wander the halls of the concrete block buildings, the air punctuated by a pungent smell from the dirty toilets. The students sleep four to a tiny room in heart-breaking sparseness. Metal bunks, the paint peeling, are topped with a wooden slat and a thin mattress. They have almost no possessions. A Snoopy pillow case and an action figure are reminders of how young they are.
They train 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. In winter the temperature drops to -18 and there's no heating in the gyms to stop muscles seizing up. In summer they sweat in 35 degree heat. The best, the "elites", are up at 6.30am and don't finish until 9pm. They've just come back from a competition in Beijing. After a 7 hour bus ride, they go straight back to training. They don't even stop for broken bones.
The payoff is obvious - these kids would trounce any gym instructor at Les Mills. I watch as three boys jog laps of the gym, each with another boy standing upright on their shoulders. Six more lie flat like planks, stomachs taut, their heads and feet propped on blocks.
Five of the smallest girls form a three-tiered pyramid. Then they push up, legs skyward, until they are balanced in handstands on top of each other. One of them counts the seconds out loud frantically - they hit 45 before the pyramid collapses. Their teacher chides them for not holding it up for longer.
Some kids are far from home, and will only see their parents once or twice a year. But there is a real sense of family within the school. . The coaches - former students themselves - are tough, but obviously close to the children, joking with them when they do well.
The girls refer to each other as "big sister" and "little sister." One wee girl massages another's shoulders. I'm sure the level of trust they place in each other must enhance their bond.
Everywhere I look the talent makes my jaw drop. A bare-chested boy who resembles a young Shaolin monk becomes a blur as he launches himself into flip after flip over his coach's outstretched arm. A teenager on a unicycle jumps a line of straw hats one by one. A young girl somersaults across the stage, springing off one arm, as she spins a lasso with the other.
In a corner a young, blond-haired woman lies on her back, juggling an open parasol on one foot. 23-year-old Emma Phillips is a long way from Whangarei. She grimaces as she drops the umbrella, picks it up with her feet, and tries again. The other kids watch her every move - she's one of the only foreigners in town. Remarkably, she chooses to live here, chasing a dream of becoming a world class foot juggler. "Anything is possible," reads her t-shirt.
For the kids the dream is to be picked up by a famous Chinese troupe. Their families are depending on it. As we leave, we look back at the little boy, Song Bufan. He is still upside down, standing on his head. But now he has a ring spinning on each arm and leg. I take my hat off to the extraordinary tenacity of them all.
Thanks to Air New Zealand for getting us to China.
You can help fund Emma’s training in China, by donating through PledgeMe.