As a toddler, Michaela DePrince, was ranked “number 27” — the lowest, the worst of the children in her orphanage in Sierra Leone. “So, I got the least amount of food, the least amount of clothes and what not,” she explained to the Associated Press. DePrince lost both of her parents in the West African nation’s decades-long civil war which claimed the lives of an estimated 60,000 people. She was born with vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes uneven pigmentation, and was taunted by the other kids as “the devil’s child.” Fourteen years later, she is considered one of the most promising teenage ballet dancers in the United States. Recently graduated from the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the 17-year-old debuts professionally on July 20, as a guest artist of the South African Ballet Theater and the South Africa Msanzi Ballet performing in ‘Le Corsaire.’
DePrince recalls her early childhood as a time of “terrible” hardship. The one thing that gave her hope was a picture of a ballerina from a magazine that blew over the orphanage walls, which she hid under her clothing. Though she had no context for the image, she says, “I remember she looked really, really happy,” and DePrince longed “to become this exact person.” She also imagined that all Americans walked on tip toes.
After a year in the orphanage, DePrince had to flee barefoot when it was threatened with bomb attacks. She was only four-years-old. She ended up in a Ghanaian refugee camp, where she met an American volunteer, Elaine DePrince, who would become her adopted mother. “Michaela arrived with the worst case of tonsillitis, fever, mononucleosis, and joints that were swollen,” remembers Elaine. She was also suffering from trauma. “I have a lot of bad memories,” the young dancer told theGuardian UK in a recent interview. “I remember losing my family, I remember seeing a lot of rebels killing people that I knew. It was disgusting and just revolting.”
Although it took her years to fully recover, Michaela says, “Dance helped me a lot. I had a lot of nightmares.” However, DePrince had to overcome even more than physical and psychological damage to become a professional ballet dancer in the United States. Rehearsing for ‘The Nutcracker‘ when she was eight-years-old, a teacher told her “I’m sorry, you can’t do it. America’s not ready for a black girl as Marie.” She refused to let it hold her back. “If you enjoy my dancing, why should my skin color or body type bother you?” she told the NY Post. Dirk Badenhorst, CEO South Africa Mzansi Ballet, concurs: “Brilliance is colorblind and it really is proved by Michaela.”
DePrince hopes her story will inspire other young people to follow their dreams no matter how distant they seem. “I would like to change the way people see black dancers,” she says. “I just want to be a great role model for kids.”