Slum to stage
16-year-old teen among Kenya’s best young ballet dancers
In a country not usually associated with classical ballet, a 16-year-old dancer leaps onto the stage, his gravity-defying turns taking the audience’s breath away.
Joel Kioko is arguably Kenya’s most promising young ballet dancer. Currently training in the United States, he has come home for Christmas — and is dancing a solo in a Nairobi production of The Nutcracker while he’s here.
“He’s the real deal,” said Dance Center Kenya’s artistic director, Cooper Rust. “I’m pushing him to go for the stars. Paris Opera, Royal Ballet, here we come. Even if Joel ends up in a more regional company, it will be incredible.”
Kioko grew up in Nairobi’s Kuwinda slum and took his first dance class five years ago in a public school classroom, with bare walls, no barre and no mirror, the desks and chairs pushed outside.
Now he’s teaching holiday classes to aspiring dancers in Kibera, the Kenyan capital’s biggest slum.
“I don’t know what I could have done without ballet, without dancing,” Kioko said. “I don’t even know if I could have been existing, it’s weird to say, but dance, it’s everything to me.”
His encounter with ballet happened by chance when he was 11. He was discovered by a fellow dance student who at age 14 was teaching a class at his school and told her teacher, Rust, about him.
“From the beginning, when he joined the ballet, there was nothing else he could talk about,” said Kioko’s mother, Angela Kamene, who raised him and his sister in a onebedroom shack shared with an aunt and a grandmother. “It was just ballet, ballet, ballet. So I saw that he was happy, and so I was happy too.”
But not everyone is applauding.
“I can see it gives young people opportunities,” said Christy Adair, professor of dance studies at Britain’s York St John University and a prominent voice on ethnicity in dance.
But she added: “I think there’s a kind of arrogance in the ballet organizations, where they think theirs is the way for training for dance ... Contemporary technique is more open to other people’s movement patterns and practices and experiences and heritages, which ballet isn’t.”
Wamaya acknowledged the criticism. “People say sometimes, why are you not teaching them, for instance, African dance or hip-hop?” he said. “Yes, it’s a Western thing coming in, but it’s dance, and dance is diverse, you know? To me, it’s not about ballet as a dance style, but it’s about the discipline that ballet has in itself as a dance technique.”
As the only son in a family growing up without a father, Kioko laughed at the notion that some people might consider a man in tights, dancing classical ballet, to be unmanly. He was teased by some in his neighborhood about the dancing, he said, but he never had to fight.
“Where I came from there is poverty, there is stealing, there is drugs,” Kioko said. “You have to be a man to live where we live ... It’s like a lion in the jungle, you have to show that you are the male there, you are the one who roars and everyone follows.”
I don’t know what I could have done without ballet, without dancing. I don’t even know if I could have been existing, it’s weird to say, but dance, it’s everything to me.” Joel Kioko, ballet dancer
Ballet dancer Joel Kioko teaches a class in a room at a school in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. The 16-year-old, who trains in the United States, only took up dancing five years ago,