Ballet Without Borders

It’s estimated that one-fifth of Nairobi’s population lives in Kibera, making it the largest urban slum in Africa. The narrow streets, lined with tin shanty homes, are busy, dusty and never quiet. Spurgeons Academy, one of Kibera’s primary schools, sits near the railroad tracks that mark the edge of the informal settlement. Once a week, the students empty the classroom of benches and chairs, sweep the floors, and change into leotards and tights to prepare for the highlight of their week: ballet class.

Mike Wamaya teaches the class. He grew up in a nearby slum, and in 2005 joined an African dance troupe at the Kenya National Theater and went on to perform internationally. He received teacher-training through the UK–based charity Anno’s Africa, which has offered biannual arts workshops in Kenya since 2006. Its German sister organization, One Fine Day, later extended the workshops into the weekly classes he now leads. His classes are based on the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus.

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“As much as we focus on talent development, we emphasize the kids’ social well-being,” says Wamaya, who teaches ballet at three different schools in Kibera and one other slum. “Their concentration level in academic classes has improved, leading to higher grades. The program has also helped the kids open up and discuss personal issues with me.”

Once or twice a week, a small group of talented Spurgeons students (chosen through auditions) take a bus out of Kibera to train at Dance Centre Kenya. The school’s artistic director is Cooper Rust, an American dancer who previously performed with Nevada Ballet Theatre. A stint volunteering with Anno’s Africa in 2011 convinced her to move to Nairobi full-time. Today, Dance Centre Kenya offers training based on the RAD syllabus as well as opportunities to perform in ballets like The Nutcracker.

Rust recently chose four of the Spurgeons students she’d been working with to train with her full-time. These dancers, ages 12 to 14, take more than 10 classes a week, including men’s class and pointe. They stay in a small boarding house near the studio and each have a sponsor for their academic educations.

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