How Ballet Saved Michaela DePrince: From Orphanage to Nutcracker
The following is a guest post from Yael Grauer of YaelWrites:
Stories of personal transformation through physical fitness are quite common, but few have lived through the atrocities that ballerina Michaela DePrince has face and emerged from the rubble with such strength and beauty. It was the image of a ballerina that transported Michaela beyond the walls of her childhood prison.
Born in 1995 in Sierra Leone, Michaela lost her parents during the country’s civil war. She was only three years old when her father was shot by rebel forces, and her mother died of starvation shortly thereafter. DePrince was taken to the orphanage by her father, but didn’t find a safe refuge there. She watched her favorite teacher get killed in front of her, and was badly mistreated because she suffered from the skin condition vitiligo, which led the women running to the orphanage to call her a devil’s child and treated her poorly. The orphans were ranked by number, and she was ranked last, so she received the worst clothes and least amount of food.
Michaela did gain one thing from the orphanage, though. By fate or by fortune, the wind blew a magazine into the building, and the magazine had a picture of a ballerina. Michaela was drawn to the photograph and the dancer, decked out in a tutu and pink satin slippers. “There was a lady on it, she was on her tippy-toes, in this pink, beautiful tutu. I had never seen anything like this - a costume that stuck out with glitter on it, with just so much beauty. I could just see the beauty in that person and the hope and the love and just everything that I didn’t have. And I just thought: ‘Wow! This is what I want to be,’” Michaela told BBC.
When she was adopted by a loving U.S. family at the age of four, Michaela still carried the picture with her. After recovering from illness (she suffered from mono and hepatitis A), she began to dance - first at the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, and then at a local ballet school in Vermont where her family moved. Michaela later returned to Rock School at the age of thirteen, when she chose to board there full-time.
Michaela’s family has been a constant source of support. Her mother often dyed Michaela’s costumes so that the “skin colored” tones would match a dark complexion. And in 2007, Mrs. De Prince hand-stitched hundreds of tiny crystals onto Michaela’s tutu, a creation made from an old wedding gown. But Michaela’s unwavering pursuit of her dream hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. In fact, she’s had to contend with racism within the dance scene. As an eight-year-old, she was cast to play Marie in the Nutcracker, but was told at the last minute that she wouldn’t be dancing that part because America wasn’t ready for a black Marie. She considered quitting ballet altogether until she saw African-American ballerina Heidi Cruz-Austin perform.
Michaela’s was featured in the documentary First Position, and performed on Dancing with the Stars. This year she graduated from the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She made her professional debut this past July in the role of Gulnare in a South African premiere of Le Corsaire. She is performing in the Nutcracker this holiday season in California.
Michaela’s story shows the triumph of the human spirit through adversity and how physical expression facilitated her freedom. Like kids who grow up playing sports, dreaming that it will be a path to a brighter future, Michaela held onto that photograph of the ballerina. Michaela is proof that no matter how horrid one’s personal circumstances are, with the right support, they can overcome obstacles and make their own fairy tale dreams come true.
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Photos 1 and 2 courtesy of Bess Kargman. Photo 3 courtesy of Herman Verwey.