Slum to stage

16-year-old teen among Kenya’s best young bal­let dancers

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

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,

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