I’ve wanted to visit Africa for as long as I can remember. When two dancer friends of mine asked me to come to Nairobi to perform in a charity gala with seven professional dancers from around the world I leaped at the chance (no pun intended). The show would raise money for an amazing organization called Anno’s Africa which provides arts education to some of the most underprivileged children in Kenya. It would also be the culmination of a week of teaching ballet classes in Kibera- one of the world’s largest slums.
When Anno’s Africa began in 2006, the Kenyan students had never even heard the word ballet before. The floor was made out of dusty, red clay that turned to mud in the rain so they had to dance barefoot. When I arrived, after an overnight flight and a crazy and eye-opening first journey through the traffic of Nairobi, I realized that despite there being no barres, mirrors or dance floor, a ballet class is a ballet class whether in Europe, Africa or America. Ballet class always grounds me in a new place because of that. Holding onto the wall in place of barres, these kids clearly knew what ballet was now. I was constantly impressed with the quickness with which they learned choreography and the insatiable appetite they seemed to have for learning more more more. They were definitely less impressed with my Swahili skills.
One afternoon we really needed to get to the school but taxis were on strike so next thing you know I am rock paper scissoring with Kiara for the right to ride on the back of a motorcycle with a stranger. The man put a helmet on me, saying not entirely reassuringly, “Because we want you to be here tomorrow.” It was wild- holding onto a man I didn’t know, the life of the slums racing past me as we weaved in and out of the traffic knight bus style, avoiding goats and chickens and bonfires and flying over the pot holes to get to the ballet class on time. It was the scariest but most exhilarating adventure.
One of my interests in going to Kenya was to learn why these children would undertake such a difficult discipline in already harsh conditions. It is unlikely that these children will be able to become professional dancers (though I would love to be proven wrong). The resources just aren’t in place and, while their technique was impressively strong, they just don’t get enough classes. These are kids who are living under really tough conditions- Kibera largely doesn’t have access to water, plumbing or electricity; rates of illness is high and life expectancy tragically low. Isn’t it hard enough to get by, much less have to worry about turn-out and pointing your toes too?
Since I was four years old I danced for one purpose- to become a professional. While I liked dancing alright as a child it was a task, and a difficult one at that. Joy didn’t seem to have much of a place in the studios of my childhood. But what I discovered with these dancers in Kibera, and indeed in all of Kenya that I saw, was that there was a sense of joy that was palpable, and an optimism that was infectious. To them dancing was freedom. It was really an important lesson to be reminded that even without a career to back it up, dance has value in and of itself and as such it should be practiced with a sense of gratitude, liberation, and happiness.
The show was not without it’s challenges- we rehearsed in a dusty room without a dance floor and the ceiling was too low to do any lifts. When we got on stage, the floor had pieces of metal sticking out of it and it was uneven and wobbly. We used rocks as our spacing marks. Everything takes a painfully long time to do in Nairobi and anytime we asked for a solution it was unclear whether we would have it by the time of the show. Which we weren’t even sure what time it would be at since it had been changed with a marker on the poster. So we had virtually no rehearsal unless you count the ones we did in the kitchen.
But the show turned out to be so magical. I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised at how well a show went, all things considered. I was also more nervous for this one. When performing for an audience that so rarely gets to see professional ballet- I wanted it to be great. After the show one woman said, with stars in her eyes, “I’ve only seen that before on TV; that was amazing!”
So while there were so many challenges in putting on a show here, it was nothing compared to the challenges these kids live with everyday and yet they still show up to the studio. They aren’t complaining or making excuses. When I asked them during one class what they wanted to do next they answered “Dance,” as if it was the most obvious and simple answer in the world. And maybe it is.
The most important part was that the kids had a great time. After the show it was all laughter and hugs and a few happy tears. I hope to go back to work with the kids soon. In just a week I’d really fallen in love with them. Despite the pollution, the traffic, the utter hecticness that is Nairobi- there is a place in the middle of it all, behind a blue-painted corrugated metal wall- where beautiful dance flourishes. Ballet is not for the elite, it’s not for Westerners, it’s for everyone. These giggling kids could have been at any ballet studio anywhere. I am just happy they let me share it with them for a little while.
There are a couple of documentaries that will be coming out about our time with Anno’s Africa and I will post them when they come out. Until then you can read more about the work below. You can even buy a brick to help Anno’s build a brand new Arts Centre in Kibera that is in the works right now!