Dalmas was born in 1985 in the slums of Kiandutu in Thika, Kenya. At the age of 4 years, he was involved in a road accident. He was hit by an out of control bus which resulted in the imputation of his left leg. He began his education a year later at Joytown, a school for kids with special needs and in 1999 received his Kenya Certificate for Primary Education (KCPE) and in 2003 completed his O Level at the Mombassa Secondary School and obtained his Kenya Certificate in Secondary Education (KCSE). After high school, Dalmas represented Kenya in the wheelchair junior basketball team (2005) and a year later was selected for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games (2006) Kenyan Swim Team. He has since won 10 swimming gold medals.
Dalmas and I first met via email in 2011 during his preparations to travel to Australia from Kenya. After meeting him face to face some months later, I discover he is a softly-spoken, chiseled specimen of a man who commands your complete attention when he speaks and moves. His adaptability in the studio was an exciting spectacle for everyone that witnessed his dancing. We worked together briefly but just as soon as we began developing a rapport, he headed off to France to begin a project with the Cie WAYO dance company. We caught up again on online and in between gigs, this time when he was on a bus en-route to Busia to visit his father some 9 hours north of his home town, Nairobi.
What was it like growing up in the slums?
Well I am the fourth born in a big family of 8 children (4 boys and 4 girls). I am the first son of the family and therefore I’m considered as the overall head of my siblings (according to my Kenyan Luo community). My mum sold bread to fish mongers at the Gikomba market in Nairobi during the day and in the evening she would come with fish which she sold in the estate where we lived. I was close to my mum but the fact that I went to boarding school when I was only 5, made it easier to be independent. I always feel like I didn’t spend enough time with her since I spent a lot of time in school.
Growing up in the slums was challenging, considering the fact that its not a healthy environment due to the living conditions. Rubbish and sewage were all over the place thus causing diseases. It was also not easy moving around as a disabled person due to the poor road networks. When I had my accident, my father was working at a leather factory and was also doing business.
Do you remember much about your accident?
Well I was only 4 years old. According to the doctor’s report, it says that the bus that hit me screeched its tyres on my leg. This damaged all the flesh covering the bones from the hip to the toes. So the leg had to be amputated with the consent of my father. I was discharged from the hospital after 2 weeks.
Are you close to your family now?
At the moment I’m up country visiting my father, my mother passed away in 2010, 3 days before the premier of my solo piece Three Phases. My mother succumbed to diabetes so she never saw me dance. My dad has not seen me dance either, he’s only seen photos. He was surprised cuz he never thought I would be a dancer but he is always supportive. Even today I showed him some photos of Pamoja that were published in the Kenya Yetu magazine October issue. He is happy for me and hopes the best for my future. My siblings are all close to our father, but we live far from him. I live in Nairobi and my brothers live in Thika, not so far from Nairobi. We talk to him on the phone often and we try to support him financially since he is not doing too well in farming.
My brothers are not employed so they just do casual jobs when they can get it. One of my brothers is an upcoming artist – he’s into rap music. He has released a single called Nita fanya job, which is Swahili for “I will work”. Its about the hustles in life and in the song he says he will do any kind of a job that lands his way provided that he doesn’t become a thief. My eldest sister lives up country, she manufactures home made soap that she sells in the market here. Two sisters live in Thika and they are into the second hand clothes business, and one lives in Taita Taveta which is at the Kenyan coast, she is not employed at the moment.
You’ve sometimes used a prosthetic leg but mostly get around on crutches. I’m wondering if the loss of your leg has really hindered you in any way?
The loss of my leg has not hindered me in anyway at all. This is because I never really experienced a long life with my two legs. I adapted to the situation after the accident and I did not lay back when other kids my age were playing games. I joined them and took part in everything they did. I did not feel sorry for myself and that is why I am still having the positive spirit until today. I am a go getter, and I always feel like I have 3 legs therefore having an advantage over people with 2 legs.
Can you tell me about the moment you decided you wanted to dance?
Well I never thought I would become a dancer. Ever since I was in primary school all I wanted to be was a football commentator, inspired by a Kenyan Swahili football commentator called Jack Oyo Sylvester. So I started dancing in 2006 after my attempt to swim for Kenya in the 2006 Commonwealth games in Melbourne flopped due to lack of financial support from the government. A few days after the disappointment, a friend of mine (who was in the same swimming team) told me about the Pamoja Dance Group at the Kenya National Theatre… so I decided to give it a try, but it was mainly to try and forget the frustration after not making it to the Commonwealth Games.
You’ve swam for Kenya and won many gold medals. Is there any comparison to swimming and dancing?
Not really, but I’d give dance the first priority if I had to choose between the two. I feel more comfortable in dance rehearsals than in swimming training. Its also easier to earn a living through dance than it is in swimming. When I have a full time job, e.g before coming to Australia, I worked in a 5-star hotel as a receptionist and therefore I only danced and swam when I had time or when I had permission or was off duty.
At Pamoja however have a regular dance workshop once a week at the Kenya National Theatre but when we have a performance coming up we meet almost every day except on weekends. We always work with available dancers. For swimming, I mostly train on weekends but training is more regular if there is any upcoming competitions. Without a regular income its not easy to survive on dance/swimming.
Who or what would you say has been your biggest influence in your life?
Well I don’t have particular people who’ve influenced me, but I would say I get inspired by people that I myself inspire. When they turn to me and say they are ashamed of themselves for NOT being able to do the things I do. Those kind of statements makes me wanna do even more so that they can also do more.
How did it come about that you got to work with Mani A. Manga in France?
Mani and I met in 2010 in Lamu which is at the Kenyan coast. He had come with his family from France for holiday. By the way… Mani is Kenyan, so he watched one of my performances in Lamu and thereafter we began talking about the possibility of working together. He had been told about me by a friend, Gonda Geets whom I was working for in her small art gallery in Lamu.
Does it help being able to speak French?
I don’t speak French actually, so I had a really hard time when I was not in the company of Mani and John (who do speak French). They both speak English as well. John is from England and Mani is from a different Kenyan tribe than me.
Have you noticed any differences in the dance culture within the various countries you’ve worked in?
Having now worked with 3 groups (in Kenya, Australia and France), I have noticed a bit of a difference between the African and Australian/French contemporary dance. In the African contemporary dance a lot of body movement is involved. I would assume its as a result of the African traditional dance which is more vigorous. Contemporary dance is also not so widely spread in Kenya, so most of the time, we create works with part of our minds thinking about the audience, (whether they will get the message or not). Having also worked with physically challenged dancers with Pamoja, dancers with a learning disability at Restless, and now working with two able-bodied dancers at Cie WAYO, the difference is immense due to the capability and physical condition of the dancers.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am putting all my focus on the ‘I like-me (m’aime pas mal)’ project in France which ends in October. The work is about the difference between three English-speaking dancers from different backgrounds working together and doing the same thing in the piece. It also focuses on the positive side of a disability, being able to do what the other two able-bodied dancers can do. Its really a great experience. John Bateman has been dancing for about 25 years now and Mani A. Mangai has a lot of experience having worked with various choreographers in France. Its a challenge for me but a positive challenge that I am ready to take head on. The work is physical and at first it was a not as easy as I had thought but with time I got used to it and now I’m enjoying and liking the piece. I’m so lucky to work with John and Mani.
What do you hope for your future?
For my future, I want to have a full-time job as a dancer and probably I would also want to start a dance program for kids with physical and intellectual disability here in Kenya. I think such kids have been left behind as far as arts and entertainment is concerned in Kenya. My dream is to see myself become the best in all that I do in life… best dancer, footballer, swimmer and cyclist. I aspire to be that person that every kid would look to as a role model in society. Make them see every challenge as a way to work even harder to overcome it and not see a challenge as a problem hindering their dreams.
I’m sure my never-give-up and have-a-go attitude will continue to bring many new adventures in my life. It’s a journey and we never know what’s around the corner.
Photo: Mette Louise // Dancers: Dalmas Otieno & Marie Delphine
Dalmas’ dance career began in 2006 after joining Pamoja Dance Group. In the past 6 years he has performed in the following productions choreographed by Joseph Kanyenje and Miriam Rother who is the founding director: Mother Tongue (2007) at the Alliance Francaise Nairobi and Moving Encounters Festival at the GoDown Arts Center; Brothers and Sisters (2007) at Kenya National Theatre; Masaa at Ramoma Museum of Modern Art; Revolutionz (2008) Kenya National Theatre; Koncrete City (2010) Alliance Francaise Nairobi, Gatwitch Festival for Peace, Makini School. He also featured on ‘Simama’ a music video by Mutinda (2010); Embracing Diversity – Art & Dance Exhibition by Art Without Borders & Pamoja Dance Group (2011).
In 2009 Pamoja Dance Group were winners of the US Embassy ‘Unity of Diversity – The Kenya Perspective’ dance division art contest held in celebration of Barrak Obama’s Election as President of the United States of America. In 2010 Dalmas created the solo dance, Three Phases which is an autobiographical work about his life before and after his accident. In 2012 he travelled to Adelaide, Australia where he led workshops with members of Restless Dance Theatre’s Youth Ensemble and performed an excerpt of his solo work. He has recently joined the French dance company, Cie WAYO and preformed with John Bateman and Mani A. Mungai in ‘I like-me (m’aime pas mal)’ under the direction of dancer/choreographer Mani A. Mangai.