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Ghetto Classics Dance, in Nairobi, Kenya
Joanna Priwieziencew, who has danced with companies in the U.S., Europe, and Egypt, and now divides her time between the U.S. and Kenya, where she heads the dance program of Ghetto Classics
“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth, and it is yours for the taking.” – Agnes de Mille
The snow was falling heavily, obscuring the picturesque view of the forest. The snowflakes were waltzing in unison, and when Tchaikovsky’s score reached a crescendo, angels appeared: the Ghetto Classics children’s choir from Korogocho, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. Their soft voices brought calm and serenity to the stage of the Kenyan National Theatre, where The Nutcracker ballet was being performed.
On that warm December night in 2018, the idea of Ghetto Classics Dance was born. In early 2019, the music education program Ghetto Classics, serving over 500 children over the last 12 years, added dance to its activities.
On the crowded roads of Korogocho, with its 300,000 inhabitants on 1.5 sq. km, its tin homes with no running water and open sewage, and its backdrop of Dandora (an immense, ever-growing, and constantly burning mountain of garbage), one can scarcely imagine encountering a center filled with live arts. But that is the home of Ghetto Classics, where every corner, every room vibrates with music—from Chopin to Tanzanian composer Adam Salim.
Now, the school vibrates with dance moves as well. Ghetto Classics Dance currently consists of two classes, each with 12 children. Small classes ensure that each child is given continuous personal attention. During the school year, classes take place all day on Saturdays and Sundays; during school holidays, classes are every day. Students are required to attend all classes taught in the program: hip hop, traditional African dance (taught by Kenyan dancers Raymond Ochieng and Daniel Mboya, respectively), and classical ballet, which I teach. All three styles have equal importance in the curriculum.
The theoretical part of the curriculum focuses on dance history—the role of dance, from traditional African culture through the French royal courts of King Louis XIV to the birth of hip hop in the Bronx. The students also learn basic music skills and recorder, benefiting from the music curriculum of Ghetto Classics.
GCDance believes all these disciplines, taught truthfully, are crucial for our students to be able to communicate their own vision and negotiate a globalized world from an informed position. Equipping young dancers with discipline and artistry, facilitating opportunities that are more readily available to peers from luckier socio-economic backgrounds, and developing skills so they can represent themselves with dignity in the dance world: this is the mission of Ghetto Classics Dance.
Including dance within the Ghetto Classics program enables multidisciplinary art collaborations: a piano accompaniment for ballet class; drums for an African dance class; original choreography to the music of Nubian oud player Hamza El Din or to an original composition from Korogocho. If not for music, there wouldn’t be dance. The process of dancer and musician learning to pay attention to one another, to support one another, and to try, fail, and create together—this very human process is transformative and gives rise to the fleeting moment when art is born.
Most professional dance schools are associated with dance companies. In these standard settings, dance students look up to and draw inspiration from the dancers on stage, in the hallways of the opera, or even on screen. Given Korogocho’s remote location and scarce access to the internet, and the very young dance scene in Kenya, this model wasn’t feasible. Thankfully, dancers are known for challenging the impossible, and a partnership began in February 2020 between Ghetto Classics Dance and the Los Angeles Dance Project (LADP). As a result, the dancers of LADP have created and coached choreography for the students of GCDance, often defying shaky internet connections. Sometimes waking at dawn or teaching late into the night, the extraordinary LADP artists defy time zones, demanding high international standards of their GCdance students. When the work is ready to be shown, the first audience to see it is always the community of Korogocho; it is to them, first and foremost, that we owe quality art.
Another artistic partner has been SquireBallett Studio, in Kiel, Germany. This partnership supports the continuity of the program but also offers a much-sought exchange of practices. On Zoom, ballet students from Kiel have bounced to hip hop beats with GC teaching artist Raymond Ochieng.
When Covid forced schools to close in Kenya, the lack of access to devices and the internet made remote learning impossible for Korogocho students. But having established protocols that provided a safe, non-stressful environment, GCDance became a full-time dance school for 14 weeks of lockdown. “They come to dance, not to be thinking about the pandemic,” Lucy Squire, director of SquireBallett, reminded us. This period also allowed the program to expand into other vital areas. The students began bi-weekly classes in nutrition with nutritional therapist Michelle Pesce. We also organized outings to nearby nature that they had never visited, from the trees in Karura Forest to the wildlife of Nairobi National Park.
What we lack in Korogocho continues to cause us sleepless nights: is it acceptable to have dance students jump on a cement floor? We know it isn’t. When a child is in pain, can we stand in for a sports doctor? Absolutely not. Are there any guarantees of the future we can offer to these children?
None. But the freedom they feel as they become music and make the impossible happen, through their own sweat and countless hours of work—that is theirs for the taking.