SHIJIAZHUANG, July 22 (Xinhua) -- At 11 a.m., when her classmates have completed their morning exercises and started their academic courses, Jessica Doolin is the only person in the training room, practising with her hula hoops.
The Irish woman knows she has to work harder than her Chinese peers to become a successful acrobat.
Doolin, 27, is the oldest student at the acrobatics school in Wuqiao County, Hebei Province, known as the Chinese "hometown of acrobatics." Her classmates range in age from seven to 16.
"Being a performer has always been my dream, so it's never been too late to realize it," she said.
FROM HAIRDRESSER TO HULA HOOPER
Doolin is the youngest of four siblings. She previously worked as a hairdresser in Dublin, Ireland.
"Working at the same place and doing the same thing all year long was dull," she recalled, saying that she longed for a job where she could travel.
At the age of 22, she saw a hula hoop performance at a music festival which reignited her dream to become a performer.
"I just fell in love with it, and decided to become a performer," she said.
Initially her mother did not support her decision, partly because she worried her daughter was too old to learn and may get injured.
But Doolin insisted. She quit her hairdressing job and for two years, she studied with the performer she met at the music festival.
"When my mother saw my show on stage for the first time, she finally agreed," she said.
As she was older than most entry-level acrobats, Doolin was not accepted at European acrobatic schools, which require years of experience.
So she searched the Internet, and registered at a theater school in Beijing in 2015.
"I know China is the best for acrobatics, so I chose to come here."
She studied in Beijing for eight months before a friend who had been to Wuqiao introduced her to the hometown of Chinese acrobatics.
Doolin ran out of savings and she returned to Europe, performing in hotels and theaters across Britain for five months. She saved enough for the 30,000-yuan (4,400-U.S.-dollar) tuition fees, and arrived in Wuqiao to begin the one-year training program last October.
Wuqiao is considered the cradle of Chinese acrobatics and the performance style can be dated back some 2,000 years to Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.).
The Grand Canal, the world's longest man-made waterway, passed through the county, enabling acrobatic troops to travel north to Beijing and Tianjin, and south to Hangzhou and Yangzhou to give performances.
In 2006, Wuqiao acrobatics was listed as a state-level intangible cultural heritage.
Mu Hongyuan, who runs international communications at the acrobatic school, said it has trained around 400 international students. The first group of students came from Africa in 2002, as part of an aid project sponsored by China's Ministry of Commerce.
Other international students have come from the United States, Japan and Britain.
THROUGH THE HOOP
For Doolin, the most frustrating thing at first was not hard training, but the loneliness.
"Unlike in Beijing, where many people speak English, I could barely find anyone to talk to here," she said.
The situation prompted her to study Chinese. Eight months after arriving, she could speak conversational Chinese.
"Now I have made some Chinese friends," she said.
Doolin earns around 1,000 yuan per day for performing at tourist resorts, 1,500 to 2,000 yuan per show at theaters, and 2,000 yuan per day for TV performances.
"My income is not stable, but it's much better than being a hairdresser back home," she said. "Chinese audiences like my show."
She plans to travel and perform across China after graduating in October.
"I have already been to Guilin, Yangzhou, Taiyuan and Shanghai. I'm hoping to see more," she said.