Classical dance fans in recently gathered in Nairobi to watch Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker being performed in Kenya, for the second year in a row. Among the performers were dancers from a ballet class in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum.
A typical ballet class at Anno’s Africa, a UK charity that works with children using creative arts, starts after school, in one of the classrooms at a local primary school. There are three sessions in a week. Approximately 40 students prepare to start the class. They put away the desks and chairs, then sweep the floor. In a few minutes, the room is transformed into a ballet studio – one without mirrors, a smooth floor or barre – but this isn’t allowed to get in the way.
The students don’t have much in the way of dance kits either and they share items donated to the charity. Their practice is barefoot, with the donated shoes reserved for advanced techniques. In an interview with the International Performer’s Aid Trust, Mike Wamaya, the ballet instructor since 2009 and a man who grew up in a slum himself, says that for his students, it is an escape from the challenges they face in the rest of their lives. It also opens up avenues for a better future.
The ballet project began in 2006 and is currently run in partnership with another arts charity, One Fine Day. Besides ballet, Anno’s Africa offers six other classes: art, music, traditional and contemporary dance, drama, creative writing and circus skills.
Journey thus far
Every year, the students audition to join Dance Centre Kenya, a bona fide ballet school located in one of Nairobi’s posh suburbs. They organise the now annual Nutcracker performances. Students Pamela, George and Shamick have so far been enrolled at the studio – a far cry from what they are used to in Kibera. They also performed in stage production this year.
Pamela told The Huffington Post she has dreamed of being a ballerina ever since she first saw a ballet performance on television. She is now living the dream and has since moved to a boarding school far from her hometown, where she continues to study the dance form – this time on a studio with wooden floors.
Another student, Wendy, who didn’t make it through this year’s auditions has vowed to keep trying until she gets into the prestigious ballet school.
Joel Kioko is by far the most accomplished dancer. Initially, Cooper Rust or a young ballet dancer she was teaching, discovered Joel at an under-privileged school. He was accepted by Dance Centre Kenya and later got a scholarship to study dance in the US. He comes back to teach at his old studio during his school holidays. He performed a solo in The Nutcracker last year but played a smaller role in this year’s performance. In an interview with The Associated Press, he compares the slum to a jungle, where children, particularly male ones, have to provide for their families by whatever means. Though the stereotype associated with male dancers can be negative, Joel doesn’t mind. Ballet is helping him shape a better future for himself.