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.”
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.