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Ballet teacher dances to global recognition

He dropped out of school due to financial constraints, but where education could not take him, ballet did. Now a professional dance teacher to children in Kibera and Mathare slums, Michael Wamaya’s zeal has seen him nominated for Global Teachers’ Prize

One by one, the children enter ballet class, head bowed. Their teacher, Michael Wamaya joins them and they get into position. They have transformed their classroom into dance studios and with no proper shoes; they practise barefooted on rough floors.

Classical music plays out of a small portable speaker, and the class begins. And at the end of the lesson, they leave head high, beaming with confidence. Michael loves teaching ballet.

He is passionate about it and fascinated to see how his work acts as therapy to some of his students who come to class broken by adversities in life.

His zeal in teaching ballet and the immense impact he has had on the children over time earned him a nomination as a finalist for the Global Teachers Prize in December 2016.

“Ballet dance, which is arched on the principle of standing straight, teaches these children to be strong and unbowed by challenges life may bring along their way. Looking at them, I understand their struggles having been there myself,” says the 32-year-old.

Born and raised Kariobangi, Nairobi, Michael saw first-hand the effects of abject poverty. Getting basic needs was a problem for his parents and his three siblings. When he completed his primary education, there was no hope of advancing his education for lack of money.

There was the lure to join crime as it seemed like the only way out of the situation. But determined to make something good with his life, he left Nairobi for his rural home in Siaya to train as a mechanic. “I was only 14 years then, but had to put up with doing a job I didn’t like to eke out a living,” he says.

He had always preferred to do arts, so when he stumbled upon auditions for performing arts at the Kenya National Theatre, he gave it a try and was successful. This gave him a chance to train in dance and together with a performing arts group, they would perform at shows as a means of livelihood.

As he advanced in his newfound career as a professional dancer, Michael got an opportunity to tour Europe performing along with the group. “Life began looking up for me, out of the money I made from dance, I took my siblings to school,” he says with a chuckle.

In 2009, however, he felt the urge to come back to Kenya and impart the skills to others. “Starting out, no one thought that dance would be of any benefit to me. But with persistence and hard work the efforts were paying off. I wanted to pass that on to others,” he quips.

Michael joined Annos Africa, a UK-based charity organisation imparting art skills to children living in informal settlements to train ballet. “It made sense to me to train children who I knew were undergoing similar challenges as I had in the past,” he says.

A career he started in 2009 has now seen over 150 children in the Mathare and Kibera trained in ballet. Slowly he is bursting the misconception about ballet being a dance for the affluent.

“People think that ballet is for the rich, but I disagree. The dance is a channel of expression and everybody rich or poor deserves a right to express themselves,” he says. The many positives brought by the dance fuel his drive to keep doing his job.

“Through dancing ballet, 18 of them have gotten scholarships up to university level while others have joined professional schools to train in dance,” says Michael with pride. What to some may look like just a pasttime, has also seen the performance of the children he trains improve in school.

“Some join the class as shy children with low self-esteem, but with time, they become confident and more active in their studies. Others go to school and take up leadership positions.

We hope to see these children make a career out of the skill as dance choreographers, teachers or professional dancers,” adds Michael. He fuses ballet with African and modern dance to create a whole new version of the dance and something relatable to the children.

Through dance he is constantly proving those that do not consider it a career wrong. “Many people do not see how I can count on dancing to pay my bills, but it does.

I am glad to have a supportive family. My wife is a dance teacher, so she understands the challenges of the job,” he says. As he battles it out with other 49 curriculum and non-curriculum teachers from all over the world for the Global Teachers’ Prize in March, he is happy that someone sees and appreciates his efforts.

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