16 years old Joel Kioko is presently rewriting dance history and taking the breath of Kenyan’s away with his amazing ballet dancing skills.
The teen is arguably Kenya’s most promising young ballet dancer as he dances his way out of the slum to the ballet stage.
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.
Currently training in the United States,but came home for Christmas and he is dancing a solo in a Nairobi production of The Nutcracker while there.
“He’s the real deal,” said Dance Centre 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.”
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 one-bedroom 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.”
Now others are pursuing dance as a way out of poverty. At the beginning of the school year, children in Kibera try out for the ballet classes, which are funded by charities Anno’s Africa and One Fine Day.
Michael Wamaya, a finalist for the 2017 Global Teacher Prize, teaches dance to around 100 kids a week in Nairobi’s Kibera and Mathare slums.
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 neighbourhood 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 in 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.”