Dancing out of poverty in Nairobi

This tweet and video from The Guardian is racing around the Internet today, and for good reason. It’s a great story about the value of the arts, specifically ballet. And, specifically, ballet in Nairobi’s Kibera and Mathare slums.

The Associated Press, however, actually told the story several weeks ago, but it was lost to the world’s attention because it was doing other things. The story ran on Christmas.

It profiled Joel Kioko, 16, Kenya’s most promising ballet star, who took his first ballet class five years ago in a public school.

“At the end of the day, we’re not just training them to have dance for fun, we’re doing it in a serious level,” teacher Michael Wamaya said. “We are doing it to make them have a career at the end.”

Even ballet has its divisions these days, the AP reports. Ballet isn’t a “Kenyan thing”, and that is the problem for some people.

“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.”

“The fact that they feel and see how much they can do if someone gives them the chance, [it] improves their self-esteem and makes them stronger in their daily life,” Fredrik Lerneryd, who spent a year photographing the dancers, told Huffington Post last month (see pictures on his Instagram page).

That’s the sort of need — self-esteem — that’s regularly mocked in parts of the U.S. culture, perhaps one of the reasons the arts has been losing its foothold in the education system.

Maybe Kenya knows something we should.

  • Inella

    Thank you for posting the videos Bob. You brought back memories of a beautiful country where I had the honor to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer.

    Never underestimate the power of art.

    p.s. nothing warms a cold MN day better than a dose of Afropop.