The glamorous stage where the English National Ballet performs is worlds away from the grinding poverty of the Kuwinda slum in Kenya. Yet that stage appears to be where one former Kuwinda resident is destined to be seen. Sixteen-year-old Joel Kioko is a phenomenon in the ballet world. Like many male dancers, he came to study ballet relatively late at the age of 13. However, that tardy introduction has proven to be no impediment to Kioko. His teacher knew from the first moment she saw him dance that Kioko was a rare talent. Despite living in a one-bedroom tin shack with several family members, the young man had a special gift that promises to raise him and his family out of the slum forever.
Kioko’s remarkable journey began when a ballet performance was presented at his school. He admits that the presentation made him laugh because he “didn’t actually know what they were doing.” Nonetheless, curiosity made him want to know more. He signed up for a class where he was soon noticed by former professional dancer and teacher Cooper Rust. Rust grew up in South Carolina where she received extensive dance training. This included the curricula at the Harid Conservatory in Florida and the School of American Ballet in New York. Rust danced professionally for a decade, but after that she was drawn to teach in Africa.
Eventually, she founded Artists for Africa a foundation that offers a range of cultural training and experiences for impoverished young people. It was through this work that Rust was introduced to Kioko. Immediately, she knew she was seeing something extraordinary. “I’ve never seen anyone move that balletically with no training whatsoever,” she recalled of the first time she saw Kioko dance. Soon, Kioko was living and training with Rust on a regular basis.
The dancer’s training began in earnest in January 2014 at Rust’s Dance Centre Kenya, and it wasn’t long before the world began to take notice. Kioko has received scholarships to train at Cincinnati Ballet and Carolina Ballet. He also took center stage during a Kenya National Theatre production of the “The Nutcracker.” Perhaps his greatest achievement to date is an invitation to train at the famous English National Ballet School. Kioko will be a full-scholarship student, and he will be well positioned to be noticed by the administration of the English National Ballet, which may hire him as a professional dancer.
Kioko’s love for dance is unambiguous. “Ballet means my life,” he has stated on more than one occasion. He demonstrates this dedication every day by working hard and giving back to the community by teaching the next generation of young dancers in Kenya’s slums. Ballet fans should stay tuned so they don’t miss Kioko’s next amazing feat.