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In Nairobi’s Largest Slum, These Young Ballerinas Dream Big

Ballet classes offer youth a chance to experience a different side of life.

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Pamela Adhiambo, 16, trains behind her house in Kibera, a sprawling slum in Nairobi, Kenya. She has been attending ballet classes in Kibera for about six years, and is now being sponsored by the charity Artists for Africa to train at a professional studio elsewhere in the city.

On Wednesday afternoons, after the final bell of the day, a cement-walled classroom in the impoverished Nairobi neighborhood of Kibera is transformed into a ballet studio. The room is cleared of its benches and desks. The dust and dirt on the floor is swept away. A group of about 20 girls wearing blue, pink and purple ballet clothes wait for Mike Wamaya, their instructor, to arrive with his boom box and good-natured personality. Then, with classical music in the air, the girls begin to dance.

Over the past 18 months Swedish photographer Fredrik Lerneryd, who is based in Nairobi, has joined Waymaya and the girls for about two dozen of their Wednesday ballet lessons.

At first the girls were shy, says 31-year-old Lerneryd, but, “eventually they got used to me hanging around and taking pictures.”

Lerneryd is drawn to the story because of the contrasts it presents. “First of all,” he says, “ballet is viewed, at least for me, as an upper class kind of dance. I didn’t expect to find it in a settlement like Kibera.” Visually, the leotards, tights, and tutus bring splashes of color into the dark classroom. And, Lerneryd emphasizes, "it’s a story about the dream, the hope, of achieving something bigger than the ordinary life” they would have in Kibera.

The young women Lerneryd photographs are supported by One Fine Day and Anno’s Africa, children’s arts charities. Lerneryd helps when he can, too. He and his housemates in Nairobi invited the girls over for lunch and supplied enough pizza dough and toppings for each guest to make her own pie. Another time, Lerneryd treated a dancer named Wendy and her family to ice cream. “It just feels natural to provide a little,” he says. “Our situations are so different,” Lerneryd adds, referring to the disparity in access to resources, between himself and the people of Kibera.

Pamela Adhiambo, a 16-year-old student, saw ballet on television when she was child. It stuck with her and when, years later, Anno’s Africa reached Spurgeon’s Academy, she tried on a pair of pointe shoes and fell in love. With plans to be a professional dancer, she’s well on her way. Funded by Artists for Africa, an organization that partners with Anno’s Africa, Pamela lives in a boarding school in Nairobi where she trains five days a week at Dance Centre Kenya, a professional dance studio.

“Through dance, Pamela has managed to dramatically change her life,” Lerneryd says admiringly, and she’s an inspiration to others. During breaks from training Pamela returns to Kibera and practices in her backyard. A child who is under Mike’s tutelage came to watch. “She wants to take the journey Pamela has,” says Lerneryd.

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Pamela Adhiambo dances in a performance of the Nutcracker put on by Dance Centre Kenya at the Kenya National Theatre. Four other dancers from Kibera were also part of the cast.

In the time Lerneryd has spent with the dancers, he’s seen their confidence increase as they learn to express themselves through dance. One image shows six pairs of bare feet rising above the ground as the girls jump into the air during practice, a visual metaphor for the way they are striving to move beyond the circumscribed universe of Kibera.

“The dreams of kids growing up there are just the same as anywhere else in the world.”

You can see more of Fredrik Lerneyrd's work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

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