Who: 16-year-old Joel Kioko from Kenya
Why we chose him: Close your eyes and try to remember—or imagine—your first ballet class. Do you see natural light pouring in through large windows, smooth wooden floors and a barre running across an expansive mirror?
Joel Kioko’s first ballet class was a little different. The 16 year old’s first lesson, just five years ago, was in a cleared out public school classroom—bare walls, and no mirrors or barre. Nonetheless, that first class awoke Joel’s passion for ballet, and was his first step toward becoming one of Kenya’s most notable young dancers.
Growing up in a one-bedroom shack with his mother, sister, aunt and grandmother in Nairobi’s Kuwinda slum, ballet became more than a hobby—it became an opportunity. Now other young Kenyan dancers are aspiring to achieve a better future through dance.
“At the end of the day, we’re not just training them to have dance for fun,” Michael Wamaya, a local dancer who teaches roughly 100 children per week in Kibera and Mathare slums, tells the Associated Press. “We are doing it to make them have a career at the end.”
For Joel, dance changed the trajectory of his future. “I don’t know what I could have done without ballet, without dancing,” he says. “I don’t even know if I could have been existing, it’s weird to say, but dance, it’s everything to me.”
Fun fact: Currently training in the United States, Joel went back to Kenya for Christmas—and danced a solo in a Nairobi production of ‘The Nutcracker.’