16-year-old pivots from a Kenyan slum to the ballet stage

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NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — In a country not usually associated with classical ballet, a 16-year-old dancer leaps onto the stage, his gravity-defying turns taking the audience's breath away.

Joel Kioko is arguably Kenya's most promising young ballet dancer. Currently training in the United States, he has come home for Christmas - and is dancing a solo in a Nairobi production of "The Nutcracker" while he's here.

"He's the real deal," said Dance Centre Kenya's artistic director, Cooper Rust. "I'm pushing him to go for the stars. Paris Opera, Royal Ballet, here we come! Even if Joel ends up in a more regional company, it will be incredible."

Kioko grew up in Nairobi's Kuwinda slum and took his first dance class five years ago in a public school classroom, with bare walls, no barre and no mirror, the desks and chairs pushed outside.

Now he's teaching holiday classes to aspiring dancers in Kibera, the Kenyan capital's biggest slum.

"I don't know what I could have done without ballet, without dancing," Kioko said. "I don't even know if I could have been existing, it's weird to say, but dance, it's everything to me."

His encounter with ballet happened by chance when he was 11. He was discovered by a fellow dance student who at age 14 was teaching a class at his school and told her teacher, Rust, about him.

"From the beginning, when he joined the ballet, there was nothing else he could talk about," said Kioko's mother, Angela Kamene, who raised him and his sister in a one-bedroom shack shared with an aunt and a grandmother. "It was just ballet, ballet, ballet. So I saw that he was happy, and so I was happy too."

Now others are pursuing dance as a way out of poverty. At the beginning of the school year, children in Kibera try out for the ballet classes, which are funded by charities Anno's Africa and One Fine Day.

Michael Wamaya, a finalist for the 2017 Global Teacher Prize, teaches dance to around 100 kids a week in Nairobi's Kibera and Mathare slums.

"At the end of the day, we're not just training them to have dance for fun, we're doing it in a serious level," Wamaya said. "We are doing it to make them have a career at the end."

But not everyone is applauding.

"I can see it gives young people opportunities," said Christy Adair, professor of dance studies at Britain's York St. John University and a prominent voice on ethnicity in dance. But she added: "I think there's a kind of arrogance in the ballet organizations, where they think theirs is the way for training for dance. ... Contemporary technique is more open to other people's movement patterns and practices and experiences and heritages, which ballet isn't."

Wamaya acknowledged the criticism. "People say sometimes, why are you not teaching them, for instance, African dance or hip hop?" he said. "Yes, it's a Western thing coming in, but it's dance, and dance is diverse, you know? To me, it's not about ballet as a dance style, but it's about the discipline that ballet has in itself as a dance technique."

As the only son in a family growing up without a father, Kioko laughed at the notion that some people might consider a man in tights, dancing classical ballet, to be unmanly. He was teased by some in his neighborhood about the dancing, he said, but he never had to fight.

"Where I came from there is poverty, there is stealing, there is drugs," Kioko said. "You have to be a man to live in where we live. ... It's like a lion in the jungle, you have to show that you are the male there, you are the one who roars and everyone follows."

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