Njoki Wairua likes to refer to herself as The Dancing Biochemist, a title that combines two of her greatest passions - dance and biochemistry.
Njoki is a ballerina, and is the brand ambassador for the Academy of Dance and Art, a seven-year-old institution located in Karen, Nairobi. She is also a third year student at the University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine, studying Biochemistry.
She talks about this unusual profession, and how she juggles work and school.
How did you get into dance, specifically ballet dancing?
There are two experiences that made me realise that I wanted to become a dancer. One was watching my older sister perform Catholic liturgical dances in church.
When she got home, she would teach the steps to my younger sister and I, and to my dismay, my sister would pick up the routine faster. This motivated me to push myself harder, to avoid being left behind by them.
The second experience that told me dance was going to be a serious part of my life was in 2004 when I was in Class Six. I came across American musician Ciara’s music video for her popular song, 1, 2 step. It was the first time I saw a woman breakdancing. Until then, I had always assumed it was a ‘guys’ thing.
How did your parents react to your interest in dance?
Initially, they saw it as a cute sibling bonding activity. However, later on when I started imitating what I had seen on TV from the likes of Ciara and putting on shows that would receive rapturous applause from my classmates, they began to realise just how
serious I was. Once in high school, I told them that I was serious about wanting to join dance school. They were skeptical at first; pointing out that there weren’t any prominent examples of performing arts personalities in Kenya.
What existed at the time was Sarakasi Dancers, but what I wanted to do was very different from what they were doing. They were also worried that I might end up dancing in explicit music videos, which was not appropriate, especially coming from a
strong Catholic background. I was determined to learn professional dance though, and began looking for an appropriate school.
My search led me to the Performing Arts School in Karen, and I managed to convince my parents that this was the right step for me. I was at university then. They gave in, and I began to train twice a week and every day when on holiday.
For a long time, I had secretly wanted to try out ballet, but never thought I would, due to my age - most ballerinas begin their career at three years, yet I was 20.
When I disclosed this to my jazz dance teacher at the time, Miriam Deinhart, she encouraged me to give it a try, given that I was getting pretty good at Jazz Dance, a more liberal style of dance though similar, in some aspects, to ballet.
I took her advice. Within a year, I had qualified to join my first ‘pointe’ class; this is when you start training and performing on your toes. Normally, ballerinas start pointe class at nine or 10 years, but I started mine at 21, which is considered old. Moreover,
it takes about two to three years of ballet to get to the pointe stage; so mastering it after only a year was a worthy achievement.
I’m the oldest in my class, since most of the other students are in high school. We however have adult ballet classes; I chose to take the graded ones so that I could do the exams and progress.
The good thing about the school is that you do not need any qualifications to join - we have students in their 40s and 50s, who dance as a form of exercise! However, if you want to take the professional route, you have to attend a minimum of two classes a
week a year to qualify for the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) Certified exam.
Who are some of the people that inspire you?
As a whole, my dad and his career journey has really inspired me. Although he has a master’s degree in Information Systems, he teaches the Japanese language at Strathmore University, and previously taught Physics in high school.
He showed me that you can have a passion for two unrelated career paths and still manage to wholeheartedly immerse yourself in both.
My other inspiration is ballet dancer Michaela DePrince, who grew up in Sierra Leon during the civil war. She was inspired to learn ballet after coming across a picture of a girl dancing ballet. Michaela is the author of the emotively uplifting book titled “Hope
in a ballet shoe.” It talks about how becoming a ballerina saved her life.
What are some of your biggest highlights and achievements so far?
Making it to my third year of study without repeating an academic year, especially since I have been involved in several demanding dance performances throughout these three years.
In ballet, I had the honour of being the first ever Brand ambassador for the Academy of Dance and Art, a role I took up in 2014.
This means that I’m currently the face of the school. Some of the cool things I get to do range from being in charge of their marketing – for instance, I oversee the shows we stage, as well as collaborations with other organisations.
Is ballet well-paying?
I get paid well enough to pay for my own classes at the academy. How much you make also weighs heavily on how well you brand yourself. I have recently been getting many business people approaching me to be a ‘dance model’ in their lookbooks,
(portfolios for photographers) to show movement in their clothing. I make enough money from this to pay for my uniform and other necessities a girl needs.
My long-term goal is to establish my own performing arts school where I’d be the principal, as well as a choreographer on a few projects. My aim is to reach that point where you cannot talk about dance in Kenya without talking about me - The Dancing
Where else can one work in Kenya as a trained ballet dancer?
The opportunities are many. For instance, you can take part in stage performances, theatre shows, adverts and various promotional material for various organisations. You can even tailor a fashion line based on your dance style – this is currently what I’m
What does it take to succeed in this career?
To begin with, it is important to have a unique factor, something that will make you stand out from the rest. For example, I’m a dancing biochemist who is also versed in hip hop! Also, you need to keep reinventing yourself.
I am not only relying on my natural talent, I am also taking the time to learn the skill in a performing arts school. Aim to stand out from the crowd.
That said, this is a career worth pursuing, though what I have learnt is that you have to have a genuine passion for it and be willing to put in the hard work required.
The journey is definitely not easy at all. It’s physically demanding, and so you have to make a conscious decision to keep fit.
Weight is a factor too, but to a certain extent. If you’re attending the classes as a way to keep fit and active, it doesn’t matter what you weigh – in fact it’s a great way to lose weight if that’s what you’re after.
If you want to get to the pointe stage however, you need to be light because you carry all your weight on your toes. You also need to do regular leg-strengthening exercises to help build up your strength.
The more you train, the stronger and better you become.
You also need to eat healthily to get enough energy since ballet is physically demanding. If you need a snack, reach for a banana or some yoghurt instead of junk food such as biscuits or chocolate.
I train for about 17 hours a week, 10 hours during the rehearsal season and seven hours on my own at home. It can be a bit hard on your feet as well, so I normally wrap Band-Aid’s around each toe to prevent blisters.
You also need to keep your toenails short to prevent ingrown toenails, which can be very painful.
How much does it take to study ballet?
I would say it is affordable. The Academy of Dance and Art charges about Sh10, 500 a term, for one class a week for 14 weeks. There are three terms in a year, so in total, you require Sh31, 500 a year.
You’re also studying biochemistry. What does it involve?
Biochemistry is the branch of science that examines the chemical processes in living organisms. You for instance get to learn about the metabolic processes in plants and animals, and a host of other interesting aspects.
It is a four-year degree program. I chose it because I enjoy Biology and Chemistry. My mum, a teacher at Kianda School, was actually my Biology teacher in High School.
Biochemists can work in a variety of fields. We can be medical representatives and promote new drugs. We can also go into research, which is a popular choice for most. Should you go this route, you can work in pharmaceutical companies, research
companies and NGOs.
Once I get my degree, I plan to start a private laboratory and possibly make groundbreaking discoveries in the field of science, after of course furthering my studies.
Visit Njoki’s website to find out more about her and what she does.
THE HISTORY OF BALLET
Ballet originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century. Noblemen and women were treated to lavish events, especially wedding celebrations, where dancing and music created an elaborate spectacle.
In the 16th century, Catherine de Medici — an Italian noblewoman, wife of King Henry II of France and a great patron of the arts — began to fund ballet in the French court. Her elaborate festivals encouraged the growth of ballet de cour, a program that included dance, decor, costume, song, music and poetry.
A century later, King Louis XIV – a passionate dancer - helped to popularise the art. His love of ballet fostered its elevation from a pastime for amateurs to an endeavor requiring professional training.
By 1661, a dance academy had opened in Paris, and in 1681 ballet moved from the courts to the stage. In the mid-1700s French ballet master, Jean Georges Noverre, rebelled against the artifice of opera-ballet, believing that ballet could stand on its own as an art form. His added that ballet should contain expressive, dramatic movement that should reveal the relationships between characters and thus ballet d’action was born!
The 19th Century
Early classical ballets were created during the Romantic Movement in the first half of the 19th century. This is also the period when dancing on the tips of the toes, known as pointe work, became the norm for the ballerina. The romantic tutu, a calf-length, full skirt made of tulle, was introduced.
In the early part of the 20th century, Russian choreographers began to experiment with movement and costume, moving beyond the confines of classical ballet form. Choreographer and New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine, a Russian who
immigrated to America, would change ballet even further. He introduced what is now known as neo-classical ballet, an expansion on the classical form. He also is considered by many to be the greatest innovator of the contemporary “plotless” ballet.
With no definite story line, its purpose is to use movement to express the music and to illuminate human emotion and endeavor. Today, ballet is multi-faceted. Classical forms, traditional stories and contemporary choreographic innovations intertwine to
produce the character of modern ballet.
Visit the Pittsburgh ballet theatre for more information.