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'Dance is beautiful': Kenyan slum reaches for ballet stars

By Dylan GAMBA
Kenya Dance Centre Kenya, a non-profit giving lessons to underprivileged youngsters in Nairobi, is putting on The Nutcracker this year.  By LUIS TATO AFP
DEC 7, 2023 LISTEN
Dance Centre Kenya, a non-profit giving lessons to underprivileged youngsters in Nairobi, is putting on "The Nutcracker" this year. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

Bravian Mise hits a series of grand jetes -- leaping like a gazelle across the cramped living room -- and pirouettes during an exhaustive rehearsal at his home in a Kenyan slum.

The 13-year-old has been practising ballet for four years and is among a hundred or so children who have been rehearsing for months to perform Tchaikovsky's Christmastime favourite "The Nutcracker" in Kenya's capital Nairobi.

The famous ballet tells the story of young Clara, who receives a painted wooden nutcracker shaped like a soldier for Christmas.

At night, the toy comes to life and fights against a mice invasion until the nutcracker-turned-prince defeats the evil mouse king and carries the little girl to his magical kingdom far, far away.

"I had never heard of this ballet before performing in it," Bravian says, a smile plastered on his face.

"I love dancing, I dance because it's beautiful."

The Dance Centre Kenya is directed by Cooper Rust, an alumnus of the School of American Ballet.  By LUIS TATO AFP The Dance Centre Kenya is directed by Cooper Rust, an alumnus of the School of American Ballet. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

Before the curtains open, dancers are put through their paces by Cooper Rust, an alumnus of the School of American Ballet, and director of Dance Centre Kenya -- a non-profit giving lessons to underprivileged youngsters in the city.

"It is important to show the world that ballet is not just for one type of person," the American instructor, a former professional ballerina, told AFP.

"Ballet is about skill and talent, and drive and passion, not socio-economic background."

Lofty dreams

Despite Kenya's burgeoning dance scene, the country does not host a professional ballet company.

Despite Kenya's burgeoning dance scene, the country does not host a professional ballet company.  By LUIS TATO AFP Despite Kenya's burgeoning dance scene, the country does not host a professional ballet company. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

"We are getting there," counters Rust.

But a lot needs to be done, and funding is a constant problem.

At the Nairobi National Theatre, the young troupe made up of children aged between seven and 17 executes perfect arabesques to live music by a Kenyan orchestra.

For nearly two hours, they dominate the stage, working their way through an assemblage of colourful costumes and accessories.

By the time they execute the famous Russian dance, the crowd is utterly won over.

A beaming Bravian savours the moment.

Nothing predestined his journey to the stage.

The schoolboy lives with his brother, sister and parents in Kuwinda, a ramshackle shanty town west of Nairobi.

He, like around 50 other children, receives grants to buy dance accessories and his transport to rehearsals is catered for -- which would be unaffordable otherwise.

'An inspiration'

Bravian does his daily exercises in a small room, undisturbed by the loud music from a nearby bar.

"It's much harder for children who come from poor backgrounds, they have to work harder to succeed," Bravian's mother, Rehema Mwikali, told AFP, watching admiringly as her son danced.

Bravian Mise, 13, shows his exercise moves to his mother at their home at the Kuwinda informal settlement in Nairobi.  By LUIS TATO AFP Bravian Mise, 13, shows his exercise moves to his mother at their home at the Kuwinda informal settlement in Nairobi. By LUIS TATO (AFP)

"I am so proud of him, he will make it."

Despite the difficulties, Bravian is optimistic: "One day I will be a professional dancer."

But the young dancers have a long way to go.

More than a thousand children have enrolled in Dance Centre Kenya since it started in 2015 but only one -- Joel Kioko, who now lives in the United States -- has gone professional.

But Rust is determined to change that.

"Our school is not even nine years old, and it takes 10 years to train a dancer," said Rust, expressing optimism that other students will also go pro.

Many of the youngsters hope to one day join the ranks of hallowed ballet stars.

Lavender Orisa, who received a scholarship last year to study at the English National Ballet School in London, grew up in the Nairobi slum of Kibera.

"Coming from Kibera, it was impossible for me to imagine one day dancing in London," said the 17-year-old, who is now back in Nairobi to finish high school.

"People tell me I am an inspiration to them," she told AFP.

She already has a major supporter in Rust, who said her student has the potential to pursue an "international career in ballet".

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