An honest account about teaching ballet in East Africa…

Before I jumped on the plane to Nairobi, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I was just heading over to teach some ballet (something I do on a daily basis!) and give some beautiful children presents in the form of second-hand dance-wear. I was also going to see where the new dance centre would be built and hand over our donation…

It’s not until you’re coughing up your lungs in a dusty 6 x 6 meter room, trying to make your phone play music louder using a drink bottle, whilst balancing a 6-year old on one hip and wondering why one of the 12 year-old students in the corner brought their six-month old sister with them to ballet… do you TRULY realise where you are.

I asked why this young girl had a baby. The reply was simple, ‘Mum’s at work so she had to bring her sister to school…’ I kept thinking, most 12 year-olds at home can barely look after a gold fish!

Look at her beautiful legs and feet!

During my first day in Nairobi, Krysteen – who keeps Anno’s Africa running and is one of the most amazing and smartest women I’ve ever met! – took me on a tour of the Kibera slums.

We were standing on the roof of an extremely dilapidated school building (that occupational health and safety officers back home would have a fit over) when Krysteen told me about the government destroying one of the schools classrooms with no notice. The government claims the land needs to be used for a ‘railway line’ however everyone knows in a couple of months they’ll put a block of apartments on the site. As if the school didn’t have enough problems.

This led me to ask about the proposed dance centre. I wondered whether it’s worth building something when it can be torn down at a moments notice. My worries were shared by Krysteen.

The site where classrooms once were…

After our tour we headed down to my first ballet lesson where I watched the ballet students prepare the ‘studio’ by moving chairs and desks from the classroom and sweeping the floor. After introducing myself to the students – who were only interested in playing with my hair – I asked one of the amazing Anno’s Africa teachers what time I had to finish the class by. The answer? Whenever I felt like finishing. I’d never taught a class without a time frame before.

So we started with pliés…

I don’t think I skipped anything on the barré. And when I say ‘barré’ – we had our hands delicately placed on the wall, imagining a smooth piece of timber running under our hands. Whenever referring to the ‘barré’ the children knew what I meant, so I never said place your hand on the ‘wall’. This was their barré.

One perk of having an extremely dirty floor, is that you can see where your foot travels up your leg. Often in classes I’ll talk about the wrapped coup de pied position travelling up the calf to a full retiré, as if you have chalk on your foot and you’re trying to draw on your leg. You didn’t need to imagine this in the slums. We had marks all over our legs from where our foot was placed. I told the students that I loved their floor for this reason.

One of the students walked in late, but I instantly recognised her. It was Iddah! One of my sponsor students. I ran towards Iddah about to embrace her in a hug, before I quickly stopped myself as I realised she had no idea who I was. I explained how I knew who she was and although Iddah’s eyes lit up, she started becoming nervous in my presence and ran to join the other students. I must admit, I’d pictured this moment very differently…

We continued on with class. Working on our port dé bras, changements and temps leve from the corner. I taught them how to do chaines turns which they’d never done before. I also taught them some of my favourite ballet words like rond de jambe and epaulement whilst they taught me how to say ‘ruka!’ and ‘pole pole!’ which are Swahili for ‘repeat!’ and ‘slowly!’

I don’t even know how long the class went for. About two hours maybe? Maybe more. I couldn’t believe how focused and attentive these beautiful children were. However I was already thinking about what they would now go home to…

Near the end of class, the Anno’s Africa teachers reminded the children to stay out of trouble, make sure all their chores were done, clothes washed, houses cleaned, brothers and sisters looked after, so that they could come to ballet the next day. Another reminder of how quickly these children have to grow up. It also highlighted how important these teachers are in these children’s lives. I’ve never had to finish a ballet class and remind the students to make sure their families are cared for.

We performed a reverencé to finish and I thanked them all for their focus and allowing me in their classroom. Then one-by-one they came towards me and separately curtseyed whilst the boys bowed, with more confident students throwing me a cheeky smile and jumping in for a hug. I’ve never had this happen at the end of a class before. And it wasn’t a once off. At the end of every lesson I taught in Nairobi, they’d all line up and take it in turns thanking me personally… just beautiful.

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I asked Krysteen if the recent international publicity the ballet program had received was a good thing. She told me that surprisingly and sadly there have been a lot of comments about ‘how cruel’ it is to let these children believe they can become a professional ballerina.

Now, this is what drives me INSANE.

Not every dancer will turn their love of ballet into a career as a professional ballerina. I am living proof of this. But I can tell you with absolute certainty, that every child or adult who studies ballet will take the lessons they learn in ballet to improve the quality of their life in all areas – relationships, work and health.

Despite these challenges, teachers like Krysteen and the entire Anno’s Africa and One Fine Day team find new spaces for their arts programs, continue their amazing work and not only teach ballet, but life skills that hopefully change the mindset of the youth here who fall so easily into drugs, prostitution and crime.

With a ballet class, it’s never just a ballet class.

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The children invited me to their ‘cultural arts day’ filled with dance, poetry and song.

People keep asking me if I’ll go back any time soon. To be absolutely honest, I would love to, but I felt like a bit of a burden (requiring security and constant transfers into the slums because they don’t have a taxi system). Secondly, travelling to Africa for volunteer work is an incredibly expensive exercise. In truth, I wish I had a more glamorous answer but I simply can’t afford to go back anytime soon. Finally, it’s extremely heartbreaking and worrisome work.

I take my hat off to the Anno’s Africa teachers as I don’t know if I’d be strong enough to carry out this line of work for long. It’s hard. I went home each night feeling a bit hopeless and completely wrecked.

So the short answer is, hopefully one day. But for now we’ll continue supporting Anno’s Africa through our Peace & Pliés Project and sponsor our gorgeous Wendy and Iddah.

I know I’d love to see the girls again and I feel like it will happen one day. They eventually understood why I was so excited to meet them and became more comfortable and less shy around me during my second day of teaching. I’ll make sure I keep everyone updated on their lives…

Our gorgeous sponsor students Wendy & Iddah…

I learnt so much from this trip. Things I can’t even tell you because of politics and legal battles. However what I can say is, don’t believe that every company who uses these beautiful children and teachers pays them fairly – or at all. It’s disgusting.

I left these children with wider eyes and a more open heart. They truly inspired me and I can’t thank them enough for briefly letting me into their lives and cementing my belief in the significance of ballet in the world.

 

I’ve had so many messages asking how you can support, donate or even get involved with Anno’s Africa, Dance Centre Kenya and our Peace & Pliés Project…

6 thoughts on “An honest account about teaching ballet in East Africa…

  1. I love what you did to the kids in my former school and inspiring kids from Kibera your art is amazing and may God bless you for that kind heart. I would also thank you for the opportunity you gave me to be your photographer that day hope we will meet again soon and continue with the same spirit

  2. You have done a fantastic work, it’s very touching and inspiring. Your passion is ignited. Our daughter has been blessed to have a great teacher. She enjoyed every classes. Thank you for making her dream becomes reality.

  3. Thanks for sharing the link to this post. I’ve shared you ted talk with my dance community here in Canada and it resonates on this side of the ocean too. I hope that you continue your work and find ways to fund what you do because dance is bigger than just our time in the studio. You obviously can see the big picture and that will be the most important lesson any of your students learn.
    Best wishes, Tia

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