Friday, April 2, 2010

Ballet sweeps slum girls off their feet

Instructor Michael Wamaya takes his little girls through the paces during a ballet dance training session at Eastleigh PAG Church hall in Nairobi. The girls have taken up the elite art form and hope to perform at a big ballet event. Photo/ANTHONY NJOROGE

Instructor Michael Wamaya takes his little girls through the paces during a ballet dance training session at Eastleigh PAG Church hall in Nairobi. The girls have taken up the elite art form and hope to perform at a big ballet event. Photo/ANTHONY NJOROGE 

By JOHN MAKENI

One would normally associate high density estates with squalor, poverty and crime. Yet in the middle of all the squalor of the sprawling Mathare neighbourhood, a group of children have taken up an unlikely passion — ballet — normally only seen in elite schools.

Every Saturday morning, the group of 30 little girls, drawn mainly from Valley View Academy, gather to practice the complex moves of the elite art form of ballet dancing.

Their passion is easily visible, and they do not seem to mind the extra hard work. To them, ballet has replaced the more traditional children’s games like msongesho, katilo, blada, shake and kati.

Though the group has not performed in any major ballet event, they were recently invited to watch ballet performances by European ballet groups at the Kijani music festival at Bomas of Kenya.

The young girls, aged between eight and 11 years, have been using the Eastleigh PAG church hall for their practice under their trainer, Michael “Plie,” Wamaya.

“Through ballet, the girls are empowered,” says Wamaya. “The girls go through a lot in the slums. They see violence and social ills; but in ballet they find hope.”

Wamaya has been training the girls since last November.

Seven-year-old Faith Kalondu is a dancer in the front row. She is a Standard Two student at the school. A step from her is nine-year-old Salome Ruguru, a Standard Five pupil.

“My cousin lives in the US and she is also a ballet dancer. I love ballet,” Salome says.

The school timetable is rigorous, but it spares a few hours for the pupils to catch up on their ballet every Friday afternoon.

Leonard Wawire, the teacher in charge of ballet, says the dance keeps her pupils fit. Mr Wawire approached Anno’s Africa, a UK-based charity that supports arts education for orphans and vulnerable children in Africa.

“I learnt of what the organisation was doing in Kibera and Pumwani. I wanted to start such a programme in Mathare,” Mr Wawire says.

So in June last year, Bee Gilbert, the founder of Annos Africa called from London to tell Mr Wawire that the organisation would support a ballet initiative for his pupils.

Group’s dreams

The dance lessons are all free. Annos Africa provides the pupils with the dance costumes and even pays for the hall.

The group hopes that some day they will perform at a “big” event.

A resident of Mradi 4A, which is located in the squalid neighbourhood, Valerie Adika, says life in Mathare is never a walk in the park.

But coming to ballet classes on Saturday keeps the 10-year-old Standard Four pupil at the school, busy. She adds that ballet dancing has bequeathed her a sense of discipline.

But the tale of Faith Kalondu is a gripping one that needs an ear.

The young girl had heard about ballet at the school from her eldest sister (also a ballet dancer) and so everyday she would ask her mother whether she could transfer to the school.

The mother obliged and the girl has never been happier.

As ballet makes inroads in Mathare Valley, time and dedication among the pupils will perhaps shape the perception about art education in poor neighbourhoods and kill boredom among children.