Growing up in Kuwinda, a slum sandwiched between Kibera and Karen, in Nairobi, Joel Kioko spent most of his free time playing with his friends.
He especially enjoyed summersaulting and high jump.
Joel had never seen any of the Kenyan acrobats in action, but he knew that he could jump higher than any other child in his neighbourhood, a place where most of his age mates had dropped out of school because their parents could not afford to take them to school.
He was lucky though, because his mother, Kamene Kioko, a single parent, then worked as a teacher’s assistant in the local school, and could therefore afford to take him and his younger sister to school, even though it was a struggle for her, since she did not earn much.
One day, a young British girl was introduced at Joel’s school. She was there to teach dance, they were told.
Annabel Shaw, 14, was a student at International School of Kenya, and as part of her philanthropy class project, a hands-on requirement of the course, she had decided to teach ballet for a term at Karen C Primary School.
None of the children there knew what ballet was or what it involved, but from the moment Annabel saw Joel leap across the classroom floor during her class, she knew this long-legged boy had something very special in him.
Annabel taught the then 13-year-old Joel for several months, and before she completed her school project, she called her ballet teacher, Cooper Rust, to come see this remarkable boy perform.
Cooper, who was taking a break from being a full-time ballerina in the US to teach children here, was bowled over by Joel.
For in spite of his not having any dance technique (apart from the little he had learned from Annabel), he obviously had a natural agility and ability for learning ballet.
“I didn’t hear from her (Cooper) for two weeks after that,” recalls Joel, who until then, had not given much thought to what he wanted to do with life. To him, going to school was just something that a child his age did.
“After two weeks, I received a letter with instructions to take it home and read it with my mother,” he adds.
The letter was from Cooper, inviting him to join one of her classical ballet classes at the Academy of Dance and Art, run by a British NGO. The tuition and dance attire would be covered by Annabel’s parents, Tonya and Nigel Shaw.
Joel was elated, and his mother pleased that her son would be doing something that he clearly loved already.
Soon after, he joined Cooper’s ballet class at the Academy of Dance, but shortly thereafter, in early 2015, joined Dance Centre Kenya, where Cooper had moved, becoming the centre’s artistic director as well as Joel’s main dance teacher and mentor.
“Three months later, Joel participated in Grade 3 exams administered by the Royal Academy of Dance [RAD] of the UK,” says Cooper.
“He scored 73 percent, which earned him a ‘merit’,” she adds, noting that the exam tested his agility, not his theoretical knowledge of dance.
From then up to now, Joel keeps getting better and better, thanks to Cooper’s mentorship.
He has grasped ballet techniques so quickly, that he was soon able to advance to Grade 4 and 5 after which he took more RAD exams and received distinctions in both grades. In the process, he also earned the highest scores in the entire Dance School!
He also began dancing ‘Pas de Deux’ (together with) the 12-year-old Lucile Plumbe, the young ballerina (also Cooper’s student) with whom he would partner in December 2015 when they performed in Kenya’s first full-length Ballet, "The Nutcracker" at the Kenya National Theatre. Both he and Lucile had leading roles.
Before Joel started the rigorous rehearsals for "The Nutcracker", he travelled to the US, where he spent three months studying at the University of South Carolina’s summer ballet program.
After the initial auditions, he was placed in the second to highest level of dance instruction.
It was a whirlwind experience, and before the end of the program, he had been given multiple opportunities to dance the lead roles in several productions staged over the summer.
The experience was eye-opening for Joel, if not overwhelming, given he experienced so many ‘firsts’ that he lost count. Nonetheless, he took the whole experience in his stride.
He had known he was embarking on an opportunity of a lifetime, and was already assured in his mind that ballet was the primary passion in his life.
During this first visit to the US, Joel got to meet many other young dancers who are also aiming for professional heights and wanting to make ballet their life-long careers.
Joel intends to learn as much as he can from his teacher, who has had a successful career in this profession, which is uncommon here.
Cooper says that ballet has been her passion from the age of two, when her mother took her to see her first ballet.
“She thought I would sleep through it, but I was on the edge of my seat throughout the performance,” recalls Cooper, who says she fell in love with the dance from that moment on.
She began taking dance classes from age three, and was so convinced that ballet would be her life, that she began training to become a professional ballerina from age 13, attending the prestigious School of the American Ballet in New York City.
After that, she went to study at the Harid Conservatory in Florida. From there, she went from being a ballet ‘apprentice’ to becoming a prima (solo) ballerina with several professional ballet companies across the States.
But taking a break from that busy life does not mean that Cooper has given up ballet.
On the contrary, at the Dance Centre Kenya, she’s not only the artistic director training children and remarkably gifted teenagers such as Annabel and Joel, she is also been choreographing ballets like "The Nutcracker" (in which she also danced) and co-choreographed the upcoming contemporary dance production called "Playing with Music" with five others, namely Caroline Slot Wamaya, Raymond Ochieng, Alexus Ndegwa, Francis Muturi and Natasha Frost, a visiting choreographer from the National Dance Theatre of Jamaica.
Joel has got a major role in "Playing with Music" which opens on Friday, March 11 this year, and runs through March 12 at the GEMS Cambridge Academy.
He says: “I have been preparing for my first contemporary dance performance by taking classes in everything from jazz, hip hop, gymnastics, and contemporary dance to musical theatre and several levels of ballet.”
But even though his time table seems incredibly full, he says he would love to be taking even more dance classes since he wants to excel as quickly as possible.
He knows he started studying ballet ‘late’ by comparison to most people who realise early on that they want to do ballet for life.
But being a ‘late bloomer’ has actually made him want to work that much harder to learn everything about ballet and dance as fast as he can.
“I had never thought about what I would want to do with my life until I started doing ballet, but now there’s nothing else I want but to dance professionally,” Joel says.
This passion is one of the reasons Cooper has gone out of her way to organise opportunities for him to develop his talents as fully and as fast as he can.
Joel will be traveling again to the US this coming June after being accepted on a full tuition and boarding scholarship to attend a five-week summer program at the Cincinnati Ballet.
The program has been especially designed for up-and-coming talents like Joel.
Says Joel, who turned 15 this year:
“I was awarded the scholarship after my teacher sent them a video of 'The Nutcracker'. She said they really liked my performance.”
After Cincinnati, he will travel back to South Carolina, where he will spend another two weeks training with the University of South Carolina Dance Conservatory.
Once the summer programs are done, he will train for a year at the Carolina Ballet, where he has already been awarded another full scholarship.
After that, Cooper hopes Joel will be ready to join his age-mates in 11th and 12th grades in an American secondary school in 2017.
But before that hope can be fulfilled, Joel needs to acquire basic social and academic skills to ensure his success.
To achieve this, his teacher has designed an intensive ‘crash course’ for him, so that between now and June 10th when he’s scheduled to fly out of the country, he’ll complete a one-on-one training program that will involve him studying everything from math, science, English and French to social science, spelling, literature and even piano.
“Joel is very much a visual learner, and although he is one of the brightest people I have ever seen in the studio, he has a difficult time with basic reading, comprehension and math,” says Cooper whose program for Joel is being funded by an American NGO called Artists for Africa.
Since the 8-4-4 educational system makes no provision for ‘visual learners’ like Joel, Cooper appreciates that his under-developed academic skills have less to do with his potential to learn, and more to do with the skills that were not imparted in his former school.
Currently, his training program is the equivalent of home schooling, which involves having most of his classes at home with the help of a tutor.
The weeks ahead won’t be easy for this young man, but already, after having only five piano lessons, he has mastered the beginner’s book, which normally takes months to complete.
“Joel is very artistic, very gifted,” Cooper points out, adding that he has a bight future ahead of him.