The title “Shen Yun: China Before Communism” above an image of a sprawling dancer was the first thing seen when picking up the February 13 edition of the Columbus Dispatch. Vague quotes of the “life changing experience,” connecting “heaven and earth,” and “explosive athleticism” littered the double-sided foldout advertisement. Tickets start at $80 for the March 5-6 performances here in Columbus. Noticeably absent from the ad was any mention of the religion behind it, Falun Gong – a racist, homophobic, anti-science, right-wing cult founded in the 1990s.

The Shen Yun Performing Arts organization was established in upstate New York in 2006. The six theater troupes of Shen Yun, including dancers and a full orchestra, train at the tightly restricted 427-acre Dragon Springs compound, headquarters of Falun Gong and their leader, Li Hongzhi. Shen Yun claims that they rebirthed five thousand years of China’s history there in upstate New York, “bringing back the rich and beautiful culture that the communist regime has been eroding.”

In reality, their dancing styles are still taught and performed in China. Emily Wilcox, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan and author of Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy, told the New Yorker that the notion of Chinese dance being banned in China is “hilarious,” especially considering she studied Chinese classical dance in Beijing. The Shen Yun performances are seen as a more watered down and propagandized version of their counterparts from the mainland.

But the performance includes much more than dancing. The messages laced throughout the show are mixed between preaching to the audience of their religion, warning of “deadly ideas” like “atheism and evolution,” romanticizing feudal times, and cautioning of the dangers of Karl Marx. At the end of the 2019 performances, “Chairman Mao appeared, and the sky turned black; the city in the digital backdrop was obliterated by an earthquake, then finished off by a Communist tsunami. A red hammer and sickle glowed in the center of the wave.”

Their explicit anti-communism has found a resonance with American audiences, but theirs is due particularly due to the religion being banned in China after their increased profile (between 2-10 million followers) was paired with protests against any critical press coverage, the encouragement of followers to avoid medical treatment, and infiltration of the Chinese government.

Their beliefs stem from the teachings of Falun Gong’s founder, Li Hongzhi. While the general religion is a development from qigong, which focuses on meditation, slow moving exercises, and focused breathing, Li Hingzhi extended it to include a moral philosophy entwined with anti-evolution, disapproval of interracial relationships (Li believing that races are separated in heaven), condemnation of homosexuality, and the belief that aliens are trying to control humans by making them believe in modern science.

Since finding refuge in America, Falun Gong has naturally become a vocal advocate of right-wing politics. They founded the conservative news publication, Epoch Times, which passionately supported Trump’s 2016 run and presidency, embracing right-wing conspiracy theories like QAnon and anti-vaccine misinformation. A former editor told NBC News that Falun Gong leaders "believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party."

Falun Gong was cherished as an anti-China voice in the West until their controversial beliefs and political leanings became unavoidable. Their propaganda platforms – Shen Yun and Epoch Times – produce tens of millions of dollars in revenue, subverting their religious messages under the surface of happy advertisements and populist politics. Unsuspecting Columbus residents will likely be puzzled when the dance performance at the Ohio Theatre turns into a politically loaded religious advertisement.