Dressed in bright blue and purple leotards, their arms and legs craning out as they stretch, Lerneryd’s subjects stand out beautifully against their stark surroundings ― monochrome walls and floors without any adornments. The Swedish photojournalist felt drawn to these dancers not because they are famous, or even professionals. The ballerinas (and ballerinos) in his photos are young students who study dance for fun.
They do so through a program run by U.K.-based charity Anno’s Africa, which provides alternative arts education to over 800 children in Kenya. Taught by Mike Wamaya, who previously worked throughout Europe as a dancer, Anno’s ballet classes focus on both the physical and mental well-being of the 40 or so students who take part, promoting the confidence-building necessary to carry these kids into adulthood.
“I came in contact with the dancers while I was working on another story,” Lerneryd explained to The Huffington Post, “and I felt really moved [by] what I saw.”
His ongoing series, filled with images of floating bodies and expressive faces, focuses less on the rigorous craft of ballet and more on the visible determination of the people practicing it. A few of his photos also provide perspective on the realities of informal settlements in Nairobi, a city that is home to more than 2.5 million people in approximately 200 slum areas.
Lerneryd recounted how a local classroom would transform into a ballet studio each week after school ― students and teachers would remove the benches and chairs, he said, sweep the floors and turn the plain rooms into spaces for art. “After my first visit I just knew that I wanted to come back and follow their progress and see how they evolved,” he told HuffPost.
Over the course of more than a year, Lerneryd observed how the confidence of the dancers grew as they mastered movement after movement. “The fact that they feel and see how much they can do if someone gives them the chance, [it] improves their self-esteem and makes them stronger in their daily life,” Lerneryd added.
According to Lerneryd, four of the dancers from the ballet program in Kibera recently moved to a boarding school outside of the slum. They are now training at a ballet studio in Karen, an upper-class suburb in Nairobi. This December, they are taking part in a production of “The Nutcracker” at the National Theatre in Nairobi.
“The change in their life and just how far they have made it in just one year is really impressive,” Lerneryd concluded.
You can see more of the photographer’s work on Instagram. Below is a selection of Lerneryd’s series, including shots of the students performing in “The Nutcracker.”
A view over Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa.
Pamela practicing ballet outside her family’s house in Kibera.
There are around 30 children in the class. even though the space is small, they manage to dance without bumping into each other.
Mike Wamaya is a former proffessional dancer and teacher for the ballet class. The ballet is part of Annos Africa, a charity who also have art classes, traditional dance music and much more in slum areas around Kenya.
Cynthia and two boys from the group hand out donated ballet shoes to the rest of the group.
Shamick, 13, is one of the older students, and he is part of the group that train in Kenya dance studio in Karen as well. When Mike, the teacher, needs to take a call, or leave the class for a few minutes, George is quick to make sure the class continues.
The school where the ballet is held is not well-maintained. It’s an old concrete building, with some smashed glass and no doors to the classrooms.
While the class takes place, other students, often boys, gather all around the door and windows to get a peek at the beautiful dance in the cold concrete room.
Halfway into the class, they train one by one. This is where the children can move freely and freely practice their skills and dance moves.
Wendy went to audition for Dance Center Kenya this year, but she wasn’t picked. Now she is aiming for next year.
The mix of classical music, Mike’s voice going, “One, Two, Three, Four!” and the colorful dresses turns the gray, cold room into a real ballet studio.
Cooper Rust is the artistic director at Dance Center Kenya. she says that even though the kids train in a small, old room and without shoes, there is really not much difference from the kids who train in her studio a few times a week. Here she is teaching Dickens, 13.
“When I was young, I saw ballet on TV, I liked the dance and the pointing shoes, and I wanted to be a ballerina since then,” says Pamela, 13, one of the older students in the class.
Some of the older girls practicing a dance they do together.
Some of the students getting ready for the class to start.
Some of the older students train one day a week in a upper-class ballet school in Karen. The routines here are the same as in Kibera, but the concrete floor and walls is replaced by wooden floors and a big bright room.
Wendy is practicing while the other students cheer for her. They each take turns and learn from one another.
The ballet slippers are very precious for the group, and they make sure they are well maintained and stored. Even though the students practice barefoot, they use the shoes to advance their techniques.
Pamela makes sure that her shoes and clothes are in perfect condition at all time.
The dancers do homework in between classes to keep up their grades. They know that good grades and dance are two things that can take them out of Kibera one day.
Pamela and the other dancers at the studio in Karen. Here, they can perform every move without the limitations of space.
George is playing in “The Nutcracker.” The contrast between dance lessons in Kibera and dancing on the national theatre of Kenya is unbelievable.
George and Shamick watching the show backstage during rehearsal for “The Nutcracker” at Nairobi National Theatre.
Pamela and George both play a big part in “The Nutcracker” at the national theatre.
Pamela is watching and waiting for her turn to enter the stage during rehearsal at the national theatre in Nairobi.
George is playing the nutcracker.
Pamela and two of the other dancers preparing themselves before the show on the opening night.
Pamela performing in “The Nutcracker.” Pamela is now dancing in a ballet studio and she moved to a boarding school outside of Kibera slum, so her life has improved because of her talent as a dancer.
The dancers are greeted with applause from the crowd after the first show of “The Nutcracker” at Nairobi National Theatre.
For more information on the ballet programs helping to shape the lives of students in informal settlements across the world, check out our past coverage.