The Artist of the Company reflects on her time teaching ballet in one of the biggest slums in the world.

Earlier this year Artist of the Company Isabelle Brouwers used her holiday in Nairobi, Kenya, to volunteer at the Spurgeons Academy, a school in Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa and one of the biggest in the world.

At the school she taught a ballet class, providing dance-wear and ballet shoes donated by colleagues at English National Ballet.

She reflects on her trip:

Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya © Isabelle Brouwers
Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya © Isabelle Brouwers

What made you want to volunteer in this ballet school?

Back in October, I came across a rather life changing Al Jazeera video about a humble ballet school in Kibera, Nairobi (the most densely populated slum in Africa).

The children’s joy of dance was evident in the video, but it was heart wrenching to see them having to train in such desperate conditions.

It made me realise how fortunate I was to grow up with all the resources to make my dream of becoming a dancer a reality, and I was so passionate about trying to offer a similar opportunity to these children.

My parents had recently relocated to Kenya, and my two week holiday in January was simply the perfect opportunity for me to visit them and the incredible students I’d seen in the video.

Spurgeons Academy, Nairobi, Kenya © Isabelle Brouwers
Spurgeons Academy, Nairobi, Kenya © Isabelle Brouwers

After lots of research, I came to discover the greater picture behind the ballet class – the children in the video were students at the Spurgeons Academy, an incredible school funded by U.K. charity GlobalCare.

The school caters for 429 HIV affected orphans offering essential food and water, the chance to be taken in by a foster family and an education which nurtures the students academically and creatively through wonderful co curricular activities such as ballet classes (organised by UK based charity Anno’s Africa, which brings art to people of disadvantaged backgrounds all across the continent, and One Fine Day).

Backed up by my ever supporting parents, my wonderful colleagues and Artistic Director Tamara Rojo at the English National Ballet, who helped me gather an incredible amount of dance-wear and shoe donations, I was all set for what I knew would be one of the most eye opening and life changing events of my life.

Ballet class at the Spurgeons Academy © Isabelle Brouwers
Ballet class at the Spurgeons Academy © Isabelle Brouwers

So you organised a workshop there. How did your day go?

I started the day by meeting with Spurgeons Academy’s co-founder Kenyanito Dudi who passionately talked about his vision of integrating the most vulnerable children into society and offering them holistic and individually tailored education, because, as he stated, ‘talent has no race or social class, therefore can be found even in the poorest and most remote parts of the world’.

He drove us through the unfinished roads of Kibera, where I was struck by the humble residents working in their makeshift tin roofed quarters.

The Academy is situated right on the edge of a railway. Kenyanito started our tour by explaining that 13 rooms had been demolished due to a national railway expansion plan that had been proposed 8 years ago but was never actually carried out, leaving the dry red earth courtyard scattered with half finished brick and tin buildings.

There was only one tiny library, neatly stocked with tattered, outdated textbooks for academic lessons and a miscellaneous mix of donated fiction titles. Two energy saving wood burning cookers were the centre pieces of the little kitchen where one indescribably strong and inspiring woman was cleaning up after breakfast and already preparing the staple maize and bean mix for the 429 students’ lunch.

Video: Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya © Isabelle Brouwers

The food stock room housed a meagre amount of dry maize and beans (the cheapest, most sustainable food source grown locally), the water supply was strictly rationed and, behind a bright wall that had been painted by the children, lied the makeshift bathrooms.

The teachers’ headquarters and head office were extremely cramped, with very few outdated computers (a recent donation from an ex student) which allowed the children to at least receive some very basic computer education. We were introduced to the staff, which included an inspiring Spurgeons alumnus who had returned as a volunteer after graduating from university.

The two floors of classrooms were partitioned by thin dividers which allowed the facilities to be ‘converted’ into a larger space for church and community gatherings, and were scarcely furnished with old wooden benches, crumbling desks and a black board.

Each time we entered a classroom the students politely paused their lesson and stood up, welcoming us by learning our names and chanting a cheerful ‘good afternoon’ in unison (and their adorable smiles grew in excitement and curiosity when I’d pull out my phone to take a photo!)

How did you feel when you finally met with the students?

I’d brought with me a page from the Guardian newspaper as a gift to the students. It featured a double page spread photo of the ballet class, and I was so touched to meet the girl in the centre of  photograph who had made such a lasting impression on me with her beaming face as she danced barefoot in the red dirt floor.

As the school bell rang, the Academy was filled with the chatter of excited children heading to the wonderful variety of co-curricular activities offered to them every Wednesday, ranging from art, creative writing, acrobatics and ballet!

While the ballet students converted the classroom into a ‘studio’ by moving the desks outside, sweeping and sprinkling water onto the floor in an attempt to smooth out the dirt, I was introduced to Mike Wamaya who led the weekly ballet classes and Kenyan dancer Joel Kioko.

Pas de deux with Joel Kioko, 16, an orphan at the Academy and a dancer who is auditioning for vocational schools © Isabelle Brouwers
Pas de deux with Joel Kioko, 16, an orphan at the Academy and a dancer who is auditioning for vocational schools © Isabelle Brouwers

There was a lively bustle as the Ballet Club filtered back into the classroom, but unfortunately lack of space meant lots of eager children, crowded at the door for a peek, were unable to join in. Mike and Joel brought a laptop and portable speakers for music, as there was no electricity in the room, and the students commenced the set class they’d been working on since the beginning of the year.

It was truly inspiring for me to see how their eyes twinkled as they described how happy ballet made them feel, unaffected by the tough conditions, and one girl exclaimed she felt like a superstar.

Barres are an expensive luxury in this part of the world, so they simply used the wall for support, and they worked barefoot because ballet shoes are too costly and too delicate to even last one week on the rough earth floor. I spent my first visit mostly as an observer, offering a few corrections and told to the wonderfully concentrated students, of which surprisingly many were boys!

It was truly inspiring for me to see how their eyes twinkled as they described how happy ballet made them feel, unaffected by the tough conditions, and one girl exclaimed she felt like a superstar.

Isabelle and her ballet students © Isabelle Brouwers
Isabelle and her ballet students © Isabelle Brouwers

Do the students from the Kibera Ballet Club ever get a chance to experience ballet in better conditions?

A few of the Spurgeons Academy students also have the chance to attend ballet classes after school hours in Nairobi’s main ballet school Dance Centre Kenya. Former ballerina Cooper Rust funded the school 2 years ago, and she kindly takes the most talented Ballet Club students under her wing, giving them the opportunity to be coached more professionally as well as train in much more suitable conditions!

However, the eager observers left outside broke my heart as I so desperately wanted to give each child the opportunity to experience how it felt to dance ballet.

I joined them in the courtyard to teach them some basic ballet positions and their uncontrollable excitement and joy was so humbling and inspiring to me! I also squeezed in some pas de deux work with the wonderful Joel as the students had never had a chance to see partnering work, and I convinced the timid boys to try some promenades with me; they were so delighted to discover their own strength!

Student of the Kibera Ballet Club stretching © Isabelle Brouwers
Student of the Kibera Ballet Club stretching © Isabelle Brouwers

How did your workshop end?

They eagerly bustled around me; one girl showing off her splits, some pirouetting away and one pointing her especially beautiful feet! They listened intently as I shared some words of advice and they seemed so enchanted by the little images I gave for them to improve their port de bras and epaulement, expressing their immense gratitude with a rush of huge hugs!

My heart was stolen by these incredibly strong and determined students

They also excitedly demonstrated a brief choreography that Mike had prepared for them to perform at the Nairobi Theatre alongside Dance Centre Kenya! However, Mike explained performance essentials such as tights, shoes and leotards were unaffordable for them, so I surprised them with the gifts from myself and my colleagues at ENB, which they received with great excitement!

My heart was stolen by these incredibly strong and determined students, and I couldn’t leave without requesting for another visit.

A student trying pointe shoes for the first time © Isabelle Brouwers
A student trying pointe shoes for the first time © Isabelle Brouwers

You enjoyed your experience so much that you went back?

Yes! My next visit was a completely different, eye opening experience.

My mum and I arrived just in time for lunch preparations in the kitchen where the stoves were already filled with the staple boiled maize and beans, and the two cooks briefed us through the lunchtime routines. Students were dismissed from their morning classes and excitedly started lining up for lunch serving.

Plastic plates and tubs in hand, they came to us one by one thanking us politely, and occasionally trying to come up for a cheeky second plateful, but unfortunately there was only enough food prepared for one helping each.

The work was much harder than I had imagined in the sweltering heat and I couldn’t believe this was usually done by just two incredible women, each with big families of their own to cater for! The students cleaned their own plates and my mother and I helped to clean the kitchen.

Isabelle with the children from the Spurgeons Academy © Isabelle Brouwers
Isabelle with the children from the Spurgeons Academy © Isabelle Brouwers

After lunch, we had the opportunity to experience the life of a Spurgeons Academy student outside of school hours by visiting one of the foster families.

We were guided through the litter strewn potholed narrow alleyways of central Kibera into an indecipherable maze of makeshift tin roofed houses, crumbling market stalls and piles of decomposing organic waste, dodging stray animals and ducking under sagging laundry lines.

We eventually arrived in a tiny room, furnished only with one bed covered in mosquito nets, an ancient refrigerator and a broken chest of drawers, no source of running water in sight. This was home for a family of seven, including a set of 11 month old undernourished and very ill twins. The children’s father, the household’s only bread winner, received only day by day contractual employment which meant income was dangerously unstable, making it impossible to purchase essential medication for the babies and offer further education for the older children.

It was heartbreaking to see the normal living conditions of Spurgeons Academy students, and it really opened my eyes to the fact that the school was their sanctuary.

The Spurgeons Academy, in Kibera, Nairobi © Isabelle Brouwers
The Spurgeons Academy, in Kibera, Nairobi © Isabelle Brouwers

We returned to the school as academic classes were ending, and I helped transform the dirty classroom into a makeshift studio. As the students filtered back in, I was touched to see them champion the new dance-wear which I’d donated the week before.

This time I had the chance to conduct the weekly ballet class on my own, dancing barefoot alongside them, and I was overwhelmed by the students’ enthusiasm as they listened to the little images I used to clarify corrections and showed them exercises to help them improve their strength and keep growing as aspiring dancers.

I concluded class with a ‘reverence’ which is customarily executed to thank the teacher, but which I performed to thank the students for showing me true mental strength, gratitude and determination and for offering me the most eye opening, inspiring and indescribably life changing experience of my life.