- Feb 28, 2009
defying gravity: teen ballerina michaela deprince
refusing to be held back by a nightmarish past or ugly stereotypes, teen ballerina michaela deprince is ready to soar.
By Giannella Garrett
.....Long before she was on the path to pursuing her dance dreams, she lived in a total nightmare. Michaela was born in Sierra Leone, a small West African country that was ravaged by civil war between 1991 and 2002. When Michaela was just three, her beloved father—"I was a daddy's girl," she says—was shot and killed by rebels. Only a week later, her mom died from starvation. An uncle whisked Michaela away to an orphanage, where she became known as Number 27. "We were all ranked from the most favored to the least, and I was at the very bottom for being rebellious and having a skin condition called vitiligo, which produces white freckles on my neck and chest," she says. "They called me 'devil child.' " She shared a grass sleeping mat with Number 26, a girl named Mia, who was shunned for being left-handed; the two became inseparable.
Horrific violence was the norm each day, according to Michaela, who painfully remembers witnessing the brutal killing of the one teacher at the orphanage who cared for her. "She was pregnant, and the rebels, whom we called 'debils,' grabbed her as she left the school grounds. I squeezed through the rails of the gate and tried to go to her rescue, but I was very small and no help at all," she recalls. "The debils bet on whether her baby was a boy or girl. Then one of them slit her open, pulled out the baby and threw it away, and then cut off my teacher's arms and left her to die. For years afterward, I feared being chased by debils."
One windy day, a magazine with a cover photograph of a beautiful, smiling ballerina in a tutu and pointe shoes swept up against a fence in the yard where Michaela played. She tore off the cover and hid it underneath her clothing. "I was in such a bad situation, so the fact that this person was so happy and enjoying life—it made me hope that I could be that happy someday," she says. When a couple from New Jersey arrived soon afterward to adopt Mia, they were told that Michaela would never find a home, so they adopted her too. "My rebelliousness in Sierra Leone helped me survive there, and it stayed with me until I moved to the States and realized I was in a safe place with caring parents," she says.
After a fruitless search through her new mom's handbag for toe shoes, Michaela showed her the magazine photo. Michaela's parents decided to enroll her in the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia. When her family moved to Vermont six years later, she continued her dance studies at a local ballet school, but it lacked the professional rigor she craved. Eventually, she returned to the Rock School alone: At thirteen, she began boarding there full-time and enrolled in an online high school. "I missed my family desperately, but ballet is what I wanted to do," she says. For the time being, college is on hold. "I want to take advantage of my youth and pursue ballet professionally," she explains.
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.