Courage and Community at Ghetto Classics Dance

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Courage and Community at Ghetto Classics Dance

Joanna Priwieziencew, Head of Ghetto Classics Dance, Nairobi, Kenya


Editor’s note: Ghetto Classics is a community music program in the slum of Korogocho, Kenya. Founded in 2009, it serves over 1,500 youth through music education. In 2019, dance was added to the curriculum, forming Ghetto Classics Dance, where children learn traditional African dance, hip hop, and ballet.

“The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”
—Gichin Funakoshi 

The river is fighting to flow through the densely settled garbage, scavenged by Korogocho inhabitants. The heat of the sun bounces from the ground, the rising dust fills my eyes, while a gang member greets me in Swahili.

Five years into my work with Ghetto Classics Dance, I am again presented with the opportunity to write about our program.

David (cello), siblings Ester and James tell Yo-Yo Ma about the Bach suite they performed for him. Photo: Ghetto Classics.

My mind is racing with stories: Should I recount the time when our students danced to a Bach Cello Suite for Yo-Yo Ma, or how David, one of our cellists, was recently stabbed in the chest on the very bridge I cross regularly? Should I celebrate the scholarships our top pupils received for summer courses in New York and for the L.A. Dance Project, or lament the rain that falls into those pupils’ homes, turning the floors to mud?

My goal has been to train the best possible dancers in the world. While teaching in Korogocho, I have learned that dance can serve in ways I hadn’t imagined.

For that reason, I choose to share three unconventional success stories.

Eva has been a student of Ghetto Classics Dance since 2019. Over the years, we have witnessed her strength both in her grand allegro and in her captivating expression. At some point, though, her stamina began to wane. The sound of her laughter was missing. To my non-debatable “Try again,” she simply could not try. Eventually, she did not spot her head in turns, and her leg would touch the floor before the music allowed.

Despite these growing challenges, Eva continued to attend dance classes. As I watched her technique deteriorate, it became increasingly clear that her muscles weren’t responding to her will. After weeks of tests and hospital stays came a diagnosis: myasthenia gravis, a rare, life-threatening disease.

Through much effort by the Ghetto Classics team, Eva is now under the best possible medical care. If she wasn’t the member of a community program, the diagnosis might have come too late, if it ever came at all.  Eva still comes to dance class. Sometimes she has only the strength to watch her classmates; other days she can do pliés. But her love for dance is unchanged.

Ann is 10. She loves ballet. Her blue leotard is always neatly folded, its cleanliness shining in the gray classroom.

Esther and Pauline help Elisabeth tie her dance skirt. Photo: Ghetto Classics.

As she pointes and flexes her feet, I notice open bruises on her face.  “Did someone hit you?” 

She is silent. Only piano music speaks in the room.  I try again. “Did you fall?”  

She shakes her head. I move on to alter a pupil’s sickled foot that catches my eye. “Teacher,” she whispers, “I didn’t fall.”  

This was enough for our social worker to investigate her family situation. As a member of the dance program, she now receives additional care through the Ghetto Classics Social Program. We monitor the safety of her environment, and hopefully can provide her with a safe space to thrive and have the happiest possible childhood.  

Grace has been a dance student for five years now. She doesn’t know when she was born, but she does know what hunger feels like. The economic poverty of her home is reflected in her body and demeanor: she doesn’t speak much, and always stands in the back line; her body is stiff, and she has a hard time memorizing combinations. Her dance skills are far behind those of her peers.

While Grace might never be able to execute a fouetté turn, her character shines with something else: courage. The courage one needs to be undergoing rigorous training despite knowing they cannot compete with their group. 

Today, Grace has no doubt who she wants to be in life: a nurse. And when she told me that, she looked me in the eyes. This is what dance did for Grace.  

We are not a conservatory; we are a community dance program. Its structure, and the power of an open-door policy, have allowed the forging of a supportive community of dance students.  

Sometimes I get to witness its beauty: When one student rehearses their solo, another runs to fill their water bottle. Frequently, they clap for one another in admiration. Other times, I’m not supposed to witness the mutual support, as when one pupil doesn’t know the exercise and another is discreetly showing it to them. But it’s what I don’t see that is of greatest comfort: the birthdays they celebrate together, or that time Esther’s family needed a new home and the entire class went searching for one, or when they listen to questionable pop music, dance freely, laugh. 

Economic poverty can push a population to the farthest marginal edges of society. Through dance, the students of Ghetto Classics have been pushing back, forging bonds, validating their community. They have become exemplary citizens of Korogocho, of Kenya, of Africa—of the world we all share.  

That is the one aim of dance I was never taught at my professional school. 


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