This week we’ve been featuring African Americans in the world of Ballet. Today’s feature is a beautiful, graceful young woman whose journey is both heartbreaking and filled with wonderful promise.
Against all odds, Michaela DePrince, once an orphan in war-torn Sierra Leone, is now a ballerina. The 17-year-old has appeared on Dancing With The Stars and is featured in First Position, a documentary that follows the pressures faced by six talented dancers as they compete for a spot in an elite dance company or school. DePrince is completing her last year at American Ballet Theatre’s prestigious Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City and wants to bring more diversity to the ballet world.
Michaela competed against 5,000 young dancers two years ago in the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix, where the most talented young dancers in the world are chosen to compete for the ultimate prize, a spot in a top ballet school.
Michaela had a tougher journey than most to get there. Born in the war-torn African country of Sierra Leone, she was orphaned after her parents were killed in the civil war. Michaela was placed in an orphanage where she developed a big dream.
“In the orphanage, I found a magazine that had a ballet dancer on point with a pink tutu. I saved it, and I thought to myself if I ever got adopted, I wanted to become just like this,” she said.
But the dream seemed almost too big to come true. She was the little girl no one wanted, called “Devil Child” and rejected over and over again because she has a skin condition called vitalago, which caused irregular white splotches on her dark skin. Then one day Elaine DePrince and her husband Charles of Cherry Hill, Pa., arrived and changed then-4-year-old Michaela’s life.
“So I was in the process of adopting one child, and I heard that there was another child they couldn’t find placement for because she was spotted. So we decided to take her, too,” Elaine DePrince said.
Michaela quickly enrolled in ballet class and by the time she was 5 years old she was a dedicated dancer willing to put her body through incredible pain. During the shooting of the documentary, which was directed by Bess Kargman, Michaela suffered a possible career ending injury. Advised not to dance, she went through with her Grand Prix performance, despite the pain and the risks.
Following this dream hasn’t been easy. Along the way, Michaela has had to battle racism within the ballet world. “When I was eight, I was cast to play Marie in The Nutcracker, and I prepared hard for it. But right before the show, I was told that someone else would be dancing the part because ‘people aren’t ready for a black Marie,’ ” she recalls. She seriously considered quitting ballet until she got the chance to see black dancer Heidi Cruz perform with The Pennsylvania Ballet. “I was like, Wow, she’s amazing! She inspired me to keep dancing,” Michaela says.
At five feet four and a half inches, Michaela is shorter and more muscular than the “typical” ballerina, and a teacher once told her she didn’t have the body to be a professional dancer—a common bias against black ballerinas. “Many people believe that black women shouldn’t be ballet dancers, because they think we don’t have classic ballet bodies,” Michaela says. “I was once told black dancers don’t have good feet, so I worked hard to make my feet have a classical line. Now people don’t say that to me anymore.”
In addition, the lack of diversity in the ballet world is all too clear whenever she gets new costumes or shoes. While pink and white are the standard colors for balletwear (designed to blend with fair skin), they clash with Michaela’s ebony complexion, so her mom often hand-dyes her pointe shoes and costume straps a deep brown. Despite these challenges, Michaela’s determined to press on, saying, “I want to inspire other girls who wish to pursue ballet.” She also credits her parents’ support for giving her the courage to go after her goal. For her performance at YAGP in 2007, her mom created a tutu from an old wedding gown (just one of the many costumes she’s made), and it remains Michaela’s favorite piece. “She hand-stitched 1,000 tiny crystals onto it! I felt like a princess,” she says.
It has all paid off. Michaela said she remains determined to be a prima ballerina. One day, she said, she will dance as the White Swan.
Here are two videos via CNN profiling Michaela: