“Especially here, in a place like Kibera, a ballet class is never just a ballet class.”
When I jumped on the plane to Nairobi I thought I knew what I was getting into. Six months prior I’d told my family over breakfast that I planned to teach ballet to children in the Kibera slums, visit a student I’d been sponsoring at one of the local ballet schools, and then head to Tanzania to conquer Kilimanjaro. My parents were a little worried because they knew if I announced a grand plan I’d follow through.
Being supportive, my parents said they’d feel a lot better if I didn’t travel alone. So I roped in my hiking buddy, collected dance wear and donations from my community, and set about helping the children build their dream dance centre.
It’s not until you’re coughing up your lungs in a dusty 36 sqm room, using a drink bottle to make your phone play louder music, balancing a 6-year-old on one hip, and wondering why one of the 12-year-old students in the corner brought their six-month-old sister with them to ballet do you TRULY realise where you are.
I asked why this young girl had a baby. The reply was simple: “Her mum’s at work so she had to bring her sister to school.” I kept thinking about how most kids at home around that age can barely look after a goldfish!
During my first day in Nairobi, Krysteen (who is the heart of Anno’s Africa, the charity I worked with), took me on a tour of Kibera. Heavily polluted with garbage, waste, animal and human faeces, the Kibera slums are home to an estimated one million people.
We were standing on the roof of an extremely dilapidated school building, (one that would cause most occupational health and safety officers to have a fit), when Krysteen told me about the government destroying one of the school’s classrooms without notice. The government claimed the land needed to be used for a railway line, although everyone knew that in a couple of months a block of apartments would be put on the site.
This led me to ask about the proposed dance center. I wondered whether it was worth building something when it could be torn down without notice. My worries were shared by Krysteen. But unlike me, she had an unwavering sense of hope and said that the building would go ahead regardless.
After our tour, we went to where I would teach my first ballet lesson. I watched as students prepared the ‘studio’, moving chairs and desks from the classroom and sweeping the floor. After introducing myself to the students (who were only interested in playing with my hair), I asked one of the amazing Anno’s Africa teachers what time I was supposed to finish the class. The answer: Whenever I felt like it. This took me by surprise, I’d never taught a class without a time frame before.
We started with pliés and I don’t think I skipped anything on the barré. And when I say ‘barré’, we had our hands delicately placed on the wall, imagining a smooth piece of timber running under our hands. Whenever I referred to the ‘barré’ the children knew what I meant, so I never said place your hand on the ‘wall’. This was their barré.
One perk of having an extremely dirty floor is that you can see where your foot travels into the ballet position retiré. Normally during a class I would talk about the foot travelling up the calf to a full retiré, as if you have chalk on your foot and you’re trying to draw on your leg. We didn’t need to imagine this in the slums. We had marks all over our legs from our feet. I told the students that I loved their floor for this reason. They were thrilled.
One of the students walked in late but I instantly recognised her. Her name was Iddah and I had been sponsoring her for 12 months. I ran towards Iddah, about to embrace her in a hug, but then suddenly stopped when I realised she had no idea who I was. I explained how I knew her and although her eyes lit up, she became nervous in my presence and ran to join the other students. I must admit, I’d pictured this moment very differently.
We continued on with class. Working on our port de bras, jeté and temps levé from the corner. I taught them how to do chaines (pronounced she-nay) turns which they’d never done before. I also taught them some of my favourite ballet words like rond de jambe and epaulement whilst they taught me how to say ruka’ and pole pole which are Swahili for ‘repeat!’ and ‘slowly!’
I don’t know how long we danced. Two hours perhaps? Maybe more. I couldn’t believe how focused and attentive these beautiful children were. Yet, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about what they would go home to.
At the end of class, the Anno’s Africa teachers reminded the children to stay out of trouble, make sure all their chores were done, clothes washed, houses cleaned, and brothers and sisters looked after so that they could come to ballet the next day. Another reminder of how quickly these children have to grow up. It also highlighted how important teachers are in these children’s lives. I’ve never had to finish a ballet class and remind the students to make sure their families are cared for.
We performed a reverencé to finish and I thanked them all for their focus and allowing me in their classroom. Then one-by-one they came towards me. The girls curtseyed and the boys bowed. More confident students threw me a cheeky smile and jumped in for a hug. I’ve never had this happen at the end of a class before. And it wasn’t a once off. At the end of every lesson I taught in Nairobi, they all lined up and took turns thanking me personally. This simple display of respect was breathtaking and beautiful.
Not every dancer will turn their love of ballet into a career as a professional ballerina. I am living proof of this. But, I can tell you with absolute certainty that every child or adult who studies ballet will take the lessons they learn in ballet to improve the quality of their life in all areas – relationships, work and health. If I thought this before, I wholeheartedly believe it to be true now.
Despite daily challenges, teachers like Krysteen and the entire Anno’s Africa and One Fine Day team find new spaces for their arts programs and continue their amazing work. They not only teach ballet, but life skills that will hopefully change the mindset of the local youth at risk of drug use, prostitution and crime.
Especially here, in a place like Kibera, a ballet class is never just a ballet class. With a heavy but full heart, it was time for part two of my adventure to begin.
In all honesty, the first 4,500 m of Kilimanjaro were a breeze. The days passed quickly and quietly while we hiked across stunning terrain, enjoyed popcorn and multiple cups of tea. I even managed to finish an entire book of an evening, something I haven’t done in a long time.
But I think I was one of the lucky ones. The higher we got, the more hikers struggled. Some people looked absolutely wrecked, walking around camp like zombies. At night you often heard people throwing up outside their tent.
For those that are unfamiliar with oxygen levels; 95-100% is normal, between 75-85% is ‘minimal mental impairment’ and anything below 75% is ‘increasing sensory and mental impairment’.
Kilimanjaro is considered ‘extreme altitude’ and as a result we had health checks every evening. Most guides and other hikers dropped to about 60% and for some reason my oxygen levels never dropped below 87%. No wonder I had such a lovely time at camp every evening.
Those last 1,395 m though. Far out. had a sniffly nose from day one of the trek, which I didn’t pay much attention to. But, when you start walking in minus 20 degrees in pitch black darkness on summit night, it becomes a problem.
The sound of my own sniffing was driving me mentally insane. It was almost like water torture but instead of a ‘drip’ it was, ‘walk, walk, sniff, walk, walk, sniff’ for six hours in pitch black darkness.
And, because it was so cold, I had to cover my mouth with a fabric buff to trap heat. But then, because I couldn’t breathe through my nose (because it was frozen), I had to keep removing the buff which ruined my breathing pattern and effectively filled my lungs with icy air during every gasping breath.
After rock scrambling and breathing as if I’d done a ridiculously hard workout for six hours straight, our guides exclaimed: “We’ve made it to the top!” Relief washed over me. But, after realising it was still dark and that ‘the top’ looked nothing like the photos I’d seen they said, “Only two more hours to Uhuru peak…”
You don’t tell someone they’re at the top when they’re not at the top!
I would have screamed if I had even an ounce of energy left in me. Instead, I sat on a rock. Sipping my drink bottle: Crying. After about 10 minutes, my amazing guides picked me up off the rock, gave me a swig of cola and we were on our way to the peak. I haven’t touched soft drink in years but I didn’t care – I was in survival mode and as soon as the sweetness hit my lips I was energised.
I don’t remember much between this point and reaching Uhuru peak. My chest infection was in full swing, my nose was forming icicles, my eyes wouldn’t stay open, my eyelashes were frozen together and my mind was playing tricks on me. I’m surprised there’s even a photo of me smiling at the peak because as soon as I reached the top my mind and body were yelling at me to go down.
Now is probably a good time for a huge shout out to my mentor in adventure, Uncle Mike, without whom I would have never been able to complete this adventure of a lifetime. He captured photos of me teaching ballet in Kibera, and gave me a huge hug at the top of Kilimanjaro when I wanted to give up. He whispered, “Your Dad wanted me to tell you how proud he is of you.” I’m the kind of person that rarely lets my guard down, let alone expose any kind of weakness, but in these few moments he knew exactly what to say.
I left Africa with wider eyes and a larger heart. The children I taught truly inspired me. I can’t thank them enough for briefly letting me into their lives and cementing my belief in the significance of ballet, hope and adventure.
Biography: After studying at the Australian Ballet School and graduating from the University of Queensland, Georgia Canning opened her dance studio GC Dance in 2013. Georgia teaches ballet to people from all walks of life including athletes who understand the benefits ballet can bring to their daily lives. @thebalancedballerina
Disclaimer: The Kilimanjaro leg of the journey was planned and supported by World Expeditions (HUMA Charity Challenge division).