Kenyan ballet dancer walks out of Nairobi slum and on to the world stage

Joel Kioko: Kenya's ballet prodigy
Joel Kioko: Kenya's ballet prodigy

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Joel Kioko: Kenya's ballet prodigy 01:09

(CNN)In Karen, an affluent quarter of Nairobi, is Kuwinda. Viewed from the air, this ramshackle island of corrugated iron is surrounded by leafy green and azure blue dots: back yards and swimming pools belonging to the slum's wealthy neighbors. When a fire swept through Kuwinda in late March, razing hundreds of homes, the charred earth and buckled metal only heightened the contrast.

It's a tale of two cities, but it's under the corrugated roofs and not the dappled shade of trees that Joel Kioko grew up. "It's dirty, obviously, but it's a good place," he says. "It's home."
    Sixteen-year-old Kioko is not like the other teenagers from Kuwinda. Kioko is the boy from the slum made good. He's found fame and his calling as Kenya's current ballet prodigy -- an internationally trained performer who was recently offered a full scholarship to the English National Ballet School.
    With only three years of professional training, his remarkable ascendancy belies his roots. But the truth is that among Nairobi's poorest communities, one of the world's most elite art forms is flourishing.

    Kioko in Dance Centre Kenya, Nairobi.

    To understand Kioko's rise, talk to his coach Cooper Rust. A South Carolina native, she is an alumnus of the School of American Ballet and the Hered Conservatorium Florida, and danced professionally for over a decade.
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    Her relationship with Kenya began with a four-week stint in the ballet off-season in 2012, teaching English and Math at an orphanage. In Nairobi she met Mike Wamaya, a pioneering ballet tutor whose work for charities Anno's Africa and One Fine Day saw him nominated as one of 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize 2017.
    Wamaya, who learned the ballet curriculum from Australian teacher Anna Nygh, provides classes for around 100 local children each week at Spurgeons Academy, a small school in the middle of Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum and home to some 250,000 people.
    Working towards a professional career is not the point, he argues. "We dance to explore challenges that the children are facing, and make them feel like they're not challenges anymore," he says. "We teach the children to be comfortable with the situation that they are in." The confidence and discipline ballet instils cannot be overstated, he says. "(They) realize their self-worth."

    Mike Wamaya dancing on the streets of Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum.

    Year after year Rust returned to teach alongside Wamaya in Spurgeons' cramped, bare classroom. As her bond with the country grew stronger, so the balance shifted. Now Rust spends six weeks of the year in the US fundraising for Artists for Africa, a charity she is executive director of. Most of her time is dedicated to Kenya's burgeoning ballet scene from her base in leafy Karen.
    Helping hundreds of orphans and under-privileged children, Artists for Africa puts on four productions a year in the Kenyan capital and provides boarding and international training for some of its most promising students. It was through one of her students, Annabel Shaw, that Rust first heard about Kioko.
    "She was 14 and decided to teach one day a week at an underprivileged school," Rust remembers. "(She) saw Joel and called me immediately and said 'There's this kid, he's 13. He jumps higher than anyone I've ever seen... He doesn't know a plie from a grand battement but you just need to come by and see him.'"
    Kioko says a ballet performance at his school first piqued his interest. "I didn't actually know what they were doing," he recalls. Standing at the back of the assembly hall he remembers he and his friends laughing at this peculiarity.
    But something resonated, and Kioko signed up for a class on a whim. Soon he was dancing in front of Rust.
    "I've never seen anyone move that balletically with no training whatsoever," she says, recalling their first meeting. "I invited him to come and train with me."
    Training began in January 2014 at Dance Centre Kenya. Set up by Rust, the school takes paying customers alongside scholarship students from Anno's Africa and students like Kioko.
    "About a month in, I was driving him home after his first performance at around nine o'clock at night," Rust remembers. After dropping him off she called her mother in tears. She'd seen the poverty he lived in; the kids doing drugs on Kuwinda's roadsides. "We've got to get him out," Rust told her. A year later Kioko moved in with his coach.
    "That's when everything changed," he says. Living with Rust and the Shaw family, Kioko began receiving sponsorships. "Now I was in the studio three, four times a week, just trying to be the best out there. And that's my life."
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    "He's just a beautiful artist," Rust says of the lissom dancer. "Joel is powerful, he's hardworking (and) loves to go for it."
    "I can't fully explain it," Kioko says when asked what he loves about ballet. "It's this excitement, this fire (...) when I get on stage and start expressing my body."
    "Joel is a different human being (to when he started)," says Rust, recalling a shy teenager now happy to be center stage. "He's now traveled abroad," she adds, describing Kioko's training scholarships at Carolina Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet. Perhaps his greatest achievement so far is dancing solo in a production of "The Nutcracker" at Kenya National Theatre.
     Joel Kioko, Kenya's rising ballet dancer
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    Professional ballet careers can be brief; fame ephemeral. Kioko is aware of this, and of the need to give back, even at this early stage.
    He's already helping Wamaya at Spurgeons, tutoring children just a few years younger than himself. "Joel is a true example that it's possible to the children," says Wamaya, "a true example that your determination can lead you to what you want."

    Young students at a ballet school in Kibera.

    Kioko says he'd like to become a principal dancer, but his dream is to maintain a professional career while running a studio in his home city, "and just take kids from the street, like how they found me."
    "I was never good in school," he says. If it wasn't for ballet, Kioko admits he would have ended up "like the other boys at home, doing nothing."
    Speaking earlier this year, Kioko told CNN of his ambition to move his family out of Kuwinda. That has become a necessity since March's devastating fire.
    Rust confirmed that Kioko's mother, grandmother, four uncles and two aunts all lost their homes, and tragically the blaze's only victim was another of Kioko's aunts. A month on, his relatives have been relocated and rehoused through Artists for Africa fundraising, she adds.
    In the wake of the tragedy Kioko received some remarkable news. The prestigious English National Ballet School has offered the young Kenyan a full scholarship. If his visa application is successful, he'll be training at an institution responsible for 35% of the dancers at the English National Ballet, as well as earning a high-level qualification.
    "I feel like Joel's success ... has really lifted his whole family up in (a) devastating time," says Rust, acknowledging the bittersweet timing.
    At the tender of 16, Kioko admits "ballet means my life." If all goes well, it will likely become his livelihood too.
    "I'm feeling a little bit fulfilled," he admits. "We're getting there."