There was a time when Michaela DePrince didn’t seem to have much of a future.
She lost both parents during the civil war in Sierra Leone, and she was left at an orphanage by an uncle. He didn’t want to take care of her and felt he would never get a good bride price for her because she had a chronic skin condition, vitiligo, which left white patches on her brown skin.
She didn’t find relief in the orphanage either. She was called the “devil’s child” because of her skin and treated as an outcast.
Then she found the magazine. Strong winds had wedged it against the gates of the orphanage.
On its cover was a photo of a ballerina “on her tippy toes.” DePrince, who was born Mabinty Bangura, was struck by the apparent happiness of the ballerina, who she later learned was Magali Messac. The two recently met for the first time.
“Finding the magazine was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said DePrince, 20, a ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet, who swears she’s clumsy in her non-ballet life when not performing a pas de chat or an échappé. “It inspired me to be something, to live for something. It gave me life again.”
Her young life had been filled with pain, but DePrince, who recently visited family in Fayetteville, says that cover photo gave her hope. At 4, she was adopted by an American family. When she met her new mother at the airport, Michaela DePrince still had the photo, which she had tucked away inside her underwear.
Now, DePrince wants to inspire other young black women to pursue careers in the mostly white world of ballet, which has traditionally been closed to those who didn’t fit the conventional stereotype of beauty, whether based on size or skin color.
She and Elaine DePrince, who with her husband adopted Michaela DePrince and her best friend from the orphanage, have written a book, “Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina,” and there are plans for a film about her story. In 2014, she gave a TedX talk in Amsterdam about her life, where she dispelled the myth that she has lived a fairy-tale life, based on her early years in Sierra Leone.
She was also in Georgia to kick off the “Defy Gravity Tour,” a motivational tour put together by her mother to share the family’s story and encourage others to reach for their dreams. And, on Saturday, DePrince will be recognized at SheSpeaks: the Experience, which will be held at Sheraton Atlanta Hotel. It’s organized by Chinaza Duson, an Atlanta-based women’s empowerment motivational speaker and businesswoman. (For more, go to www.shespeaksworldwide.com.)
Michaela DePrince is clearly uncomfortable when talking about her life in Sierra Leone. One reason she wrote the book, she said, was so she would not have to talk about it all of the time. Her mother says it brings back unpleasant memories. Her body relaxes, though, when asked about dance.
She started taking ballet lessons at a young age. Her mother said one instructor was so impressed he joked that Michaela DePrince must be a reincarnated Russian ballerina.
According to the bio on her website, she was featured in the ballet documentary “First Position,” and later debuted professionally as a guest principal at the Joburg Ballet in South Africa. She then danced with the Dance Theatre of Harlem professional company for one year before joining the Dutch National Junior Company as a second-year member and apprentice to the main company.
Her family moved to Fayetteville last fall, and while on a visit home, DePrince set aside time to teach, which she loves to do. She signed copies of her book and taught a class at the Reigning Victory Dance Studio. Clad in all black with brown-colored pointe shoes, dyed to try to match her skin color, DePrince led nearly two dozen young girls and teens, ages 8-18, through a series of moves at the barres. Outside sat her boyfriend, Skyler Maxey-Wert, who dances with a ballet company in Dresden, Germany.
“You can smile,” the 5-foot-4 DePrince, who declines to give her weight, told the class. “You can have fun.”
Perhaps not so easy when you’re under the steady gaze of a professional ballerina.
“It was awesome,” said 12-year-old Imani Tornes, whose mother, Felecia Thomas, is the studio’s artistic director and founder. At the same time, “it was hard but it helped. When I started ballet, I didn’t really like it, but now she has inspired me.”
Thomas said the class with DePrince sparked something in her three daughters and several of the girls.
“They see that their goals are attainable as far as dancing with a professional ballet company,” Thomas said. “They see she had to really work hard to get where she is. I always tell them that dancing is hard, but if it’s something you want to do, you have to make it part of your lifestyle.”
Thomas and other instructors make sure that their students know there are and have been ballerinas of color, though many went unheralded because of racism. The ballet world went aflutter recently when Misty Copeland was named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, becoming the first African-American to do so.
However, Joan Myers Brown, 83, founder and artist director of the 45-year-old Philadelphia Dance Company, also known as Philadanco, was more circumspect.
“I’m not taking anything away from Misty, but if she had been Michaela’s color, she would not have progressed that far — not because of her ability but because of her coloring. Opportunities for girls of color are still very limited — they don’t fit into the line of white girls in white costumes. Black girls stand out. That’s why Michaela is in Europe and not dancing with a classical American company.”
Michaela DePrince doesn’t dispute the difficulty of being a black ballerina, but said she was offered positions at some schools in the United States. Many of them were for contemporary dance, and her heart was set on a top-tier classical ballet company. She has danced with the Dutch National Ballet for two years.
“It’s been a real roller coaster for me,” DePrince said. Hard work, though, is the key, no matter what your color, she said. DePrince said some companies say they are diverse and have one black ballerina. “That’s not diversity at all.” She wants young women to push forward in the field. She draws inspiration from them as well.
Her success, she said, will prove to her uncle and people who worked at the orphanage that you can’t judge someone’s potential by the package they come in.
Perhaps that’s a reminder to the world of ballet as well.