Although ballet isn’t something you would expect to find in Africa, Mike Wamaya teaches ballet dancing, not to privileged children, but to kids in Kibera, Africa's largest slum. Thanks to his lessons, the students gain confidence and perform better in school. The Kenyan dance instructor was awarded a place in this year’s top ten of the Global Teacher Prize.
School children are sweeping the dusty floor of a classroom in their school, built of concrete among the thousands of corrugated homes in Kibera. But as soon as the music starts, the dark room transforms into a dance studio where 32-year-old Mike Wamaya teaches the basics of ballet to girls and boys dressed in colorful second-hand ballet costumes.
More concentration in class
“Ballet brings the children many things”, says Wamaya. “They learn expression techniques, gain confidence and improve their concentration in class. Before starting the program, children used to skip school but we now see them appreciating going to school more.”
As Wamaya grew up in a slum as well, he knows first-hand the struggles these children are going through. “There was too much chaos and too much crime around me and my friends and we lost quite a lot of young people that we grew up with together.”
Find a job to support the family
When the Kenyan was only 13-years-old, his father died. Being the oldest child, he had to quit school, move back to his village and find a job to support his family. But one day, he saw a poster of the Kenya Performing Arts Group, auditioned and got selected for the dance training. “I was thrilled as I always dreamed of becoming a dancer.”
Through the dance program, Wamaya also learned about ballet for the first time and he saw videos of women and men dancing to classical musical wearing ballet costumes. “At first, it was weird for me to see these men dancing in tights. And we didn’t understand the concept of being tiny and still masculine.”
Combining ballet and African dance
But while touring with the group - not only in Kenya but also in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK - Wamaya learned to tap into the powerful potential of linking ballet to traditional African dance. “African dance is about showing your power and ballet is about carrying your audience through the story. So if you combine those two worlds, you will be a spectacular dancer.”
In 2009, UK-based charity organization Anno’s Africa spotted the Kenyan dancer during a performance and asked him to start ballet classes in the slums. Although the children never heard of classical dance, they quickly became entranced. “They immediately liked the costumes and wanted to learn those pirouettes.”
Art education for all Kenyan schools
Earlier this year, Wamaya was chosen as a top-ten finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, being the first dance instructor ever selected for this price. He was asked to teach a master class during the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai. “Though I never even went to high school, all those lecturers from Harvard and Stanford were listening to me”, the Kenyan says with a big smile on his face.
Wamaya now tries to convince the Kenyan government to adopt art education into the Kenyan standard school curriculum. “Currently children mainly learn to repeat their teachers while through art you develop creativity”, says Wamaya. “This is extremely important, not only for the wellbeing of our children but also for boys and girls who would like to start their own business after finishing school. As an entrepreneur, you need to know how to create something out of nothing.”