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Young ballet dancers dream of life beyond Kenyan slums

From Isha Sesay, CNN
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Beautiful dance in tough neighborhood
  • Poverty and crime are widespread in Nairobi's Mathare slums
  • Around 40 Mathare students are taking after-school ballet classes
  • School teachers say skills learned through dancing have improved pupils' concentration
  • UK-based charity Anno's Africa is behind the classes

(CNN) -- In Kenya's giant Mathare slums poverty and crime are widespread. But youngsters there are getting a chance to realize their potential -- by learning ballet.

Mathare, in Nairobi, may seem like an unlikely place for ballerinas in training, but around 40 students living in the tough neighborhood take beginner lessons once a week with instructor Mike Wamaya.

"It's new and it's what they like," Wamaya explained. "And it's what they never believe they could have ever done."

The instructor says learning ballet could help change these children's lives.

"It's a chance for kids from slums to learn how to dance ballet, even if just basics -- a chance to be yourself and a chance to interact and express yourself in an artistic way," he continued.

The dance classes are the brain child of Anno's Africa, a UK-based charity that offers arts education to vulnerable children in some of Africa's most deprived city slums.

The classes are run on Fridays after school and the young girls and boys who take part use an empty church hall without bars or mirrors as their ballet studio.

"We had to cement the floor so it's not that rough," Wamaya said. "So the challenge is having a ballet studio where they can properly learn."

The plain surroundings do not seem to bother the youngsters, who just come to enjoy the lesson.

Ballet makes me feel good and also teaches me things.
--Salome Rugulu, ballet student aged 11
  • Kenya
  • Africa
  • Ballet

"Ballet makes me feel good and also teaches me things," said 11-year-old dancer Salome Rugulu.

The dance class is proving a hit in the area. Organizers say it has become one of the most popular classes in the local arts program.

But ballet isn't just about learning dance moves and Wamaya says it is as much mental as it is physical. "We believe it keeps our guys focused. It prepares them mentally and it trains them how to breathe and have body postures," he explained.

Teachers at the local school say the skills learned through dancing have also improved things in the classroom.

Leonard Wawira is the principal of Valley View Academy, a private school for children whose parents can't afford to send them to state schools. He believes the extra-curricular classes encourage his students to attend school and focus more during lessons.

"Ballet is known as an advanced activity. It's an advanced level of concentration," Wawira said.

"You can see it in classes. The level of concentration and participation in class work is very different," he continued.

Outside of the classroom, the activities are a welcome distraction in a neighborhood that is one of the toughest places in the world to grow up.

Mathare lacks clean drinking water and adequate housing, and has problems with thieves, drug dealers, and prostitutes.

"Where we are, children are vulnerable," Wawira explained. "They're exposed to so many vices. They are the drug traffickers. They're involved by the parents or their guardians.

"So therefore, when involved in activities, they get out of that. It means they leave the vices and embrace the virtues," he added.

It is these factors that motivate Wamaya to encourage his students. While they may have little in the way of material wealth, he sees their full potential.

"We can't offer food for all of them and offer clothing and money, but what you can give them is knowledge," he said. "This knowledge they will apply when they go back home and they'll use it in the challenges they're having."

For youngsters like Rugulu, the classes have allowed them to dream of a life beyond Mathare.

"When I grow up I'd like to be an international ballet dancer," she said.