When Penguin Books Australia published Li Cunxin’s best-selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancerin 2003, Julie Watts, who edited the book, tried to encourage his wife Mary Li to write an accompanying memoir.

At first, Li (formerly Mary McKendry), a former, high-flying ballerina who met her husband when they danced as partners for Houston Ballet, wasn’t interested.

“I had no intention [of writing a book],” she tells Limelight. “And I wouldn’t have written it without Li’s editor Julie. She always wanted my book and I’d laugh at her and say, ‘You know I’m not going to do that, Julie’ because I always knew the amount of work it takes to write a book and I’m a very busy person. I love my work (as a ballet mistress) and I didn’t want to be working after work, which is what Li did.”

Mary Li. Photograph © Mikala Connor

“I live with a whirlwind and I have three children of my own, and one with a disability, so I was very time consumed and I really wanted to keep up my real passion, which was dance so...