Joel Kioko is a Kenyan dancer, who graduated this year (2020) from the English National Ballet School. Joel was interviewed by Rasmus Meldgaard Harboe for The What Dance Can Do Project.
Who was Joel Kioko before he started dancing ballet?
Joel Kioko before ballet was this boy who was obsessed with playing around. I was a little boy who wanted to do everything you see in films. I used to love going to the mall, mess around and look at things I would never be able to buy. I used to be—no, I am just very happy and have a lot of energy.
If you look back at pictures, I was always that kid who makes funny faces. The cheeky little kid, that’s me. But I used to get into a lot of trouble. I lived somewhere where drugs and police were the regular. I gambled when I was little. We played cards, but with money. I don’t think that’s a good idea when you’re little, because that makes you—want more. But it was a normal thing back in the village.
Did you listen to music?
Oh yes! But not classical. I mostly listened to Kenyan music, a bit of American music. I’ve always had a thing for music, I love it.
Eventually, you started dancing ballet. How did that happen?
My cousin was dancing. She used to talk about it all the time. You know, when someone in your family talks too much about something, and you just want to shut them up? I joined ballet and took classes every Wednesday. After that, my cousin quit. But I had started to love ballet, so I kept going.
When was this?
Wait a second—you danced for four years before you auditioned for English National Ballet School?
That’s very quickly!
Yeah, it’s very quickly. Ballet was so alien to me; it wasn’t something I used to see. I kind of approached it like acrobatics. When I was little, I used to do a lot of acrobat stuff. When I started doing ballet I thought, this is actually kind of easy. You’re pretty much jumping all the time. Of course, there’s technique, but this is easy.
You moved from Kenya to London and joined English National Ballet. Does it feel different to be a dancer here in the UK?
No, because ballet doesn’t change from country to country. The technique can be different, but the core of it and the steps are pretty much the same. Everyone there has their own thing, but they make this amazing group as a company.
What was your first rehearsal like?
To be honest, I didn’t care who was looking. I was going nuts. It was a big studio with a lot of history. I’d been given a chance to dance here, and I didn’t care about being nervous. That’s always been my mentality. I am nervous, I’m not gonna lie. You get shaky, but everyone has their own passion for ballet. If I mess up, they know I was trying. Every time I’m stepping out of a studio, I’m dripping.
What is your motivation?
My motivation is my mum, because I know what she had gone through. I don’t want my family to go through poverty anymore. That’s my burning fire. My mum has lived a crazy life. I don’t want my sister and cousins, all of them, to feel that pain anymore.
What do you want for them?
I never asked them what they want. But whatever they want, I want that to happen. I want them to feel something. I want them not to face the same problems, going outside and begging for food. I want them to be comfortable in their own pockets. Have a snack in the middle of the day and not wait to go and spend that money. A safe life. I don’t have that kind of money, but I will do everything for them.
You’re only 19, and you’ve achieved so much already. What do you want for your own future?
There’s a lot that keep me up at night. There’s so much I want to do for this planet and back at home. For me, right now, it’s ballet. When I’m done with this, there are other things I want to do. Getting people off the streets. Giving them a purpose in life. Tackling people with drug issues. There’s a lot here in London—that’s one thing I do when I’m out; I talk to the homeless people. Nobody ever does that.
These people have hearts, and they are broken. They just need some guidance. I don’t know how, and that’s one thing that really annoys me, but that’s something I’m looking to do in my life. Giving people purpose to people who have lost hope. I had lost hope, man. In a way. A lot of things could have happened, if I hadn’t decided to do something.
That leads me to my next question: What has dance done for you?
It’s given me freedom. A lot of hope which I never had before. It has opened my eyes to people I would have never trusted before. But people you meet in a dance studio are just sweethearts. They want to help, and they take care. It’s pretty much changed my vision of people. Everyday dance teaching me something new. It’s a blessing for sure.