Teenage boy from Nairobi slum makes it to top ballet school in UK

‘The kids back home don’t have anything. So I’m an example to them,’ says Joel Kioko

Maya Oppenheim
Sunday 16 July 2017 12:53
Kenyan Joel Kioko is inspired by Cuba’s Carlos Acosta and is keen to be a role model for the ‘kids back home’
Kenyan Joel Kioko is inspired by Cuba’s Carlos Acosta and is keen to be a role model for the ‘kids back home’

A teenage boy who grew up in the slums of Nairobi has been awarded a place at the English National Ballet School in London.

Joel Kioko, widely seen as Kenya’s most promising ballet dancer, has been awarded a full scholarship for the prestigious school despite having never seen a full-length ballet on the stage.

The 17-year-old was raised in Nairobi’s Kuwinda slum and took his first ever dance class in a school classroom with stripped bare walls and no barre or mirror.

Kioko, who performed in a version of The Nutcracker in Nairobi last year, took up ballet just three years ago after following his female cousin to her ballet classes. At the time, he had merely intended to make a nuisance of himself.

Recalling his first lessons in Nairobi in a film about himself Joel’s Story, Kioko said: “I thought, what is this strange dance? It is not like Kenyan dancing. So I did not fall in love with ballet straightaway.

“But when we did the men’s class and I could jump and turn, I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life.”

The ballet prodigy, who is famed for his gravity-spurning turns, said he feels a duty to demonstrate that dancing can be both a path out of poverty and a labour of love.

“The kids back home don’t have anything. So I’m an example to them. And, if I mess up, I think they’re going to be just done for. That’s the pressure I feel,” he told The Sunday Times.

In March, more than 2,000 people were forced onto the streets when a fire erupted in the Kuwinda slum.

Kioko, who has more recently trained in the US, is a profoundly athletic dancer who shares parallels with his idol the Cuban ballet icon Carlos Acosta – Acosta was the eleventh and last child in an impoverished Havana family.

While Kenya is by no means a country traditionally associated with one of the most elite art forms, classical ballet is beginning to blossom among Nairobi’s poorest communities.

Efforts are under way to raise funds for Kioko’s living expenses.

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