Dance moves

When she isn’t lifting and leaping, Michaela DePrince stays grounded

The ballerina will perform at the Women in the World London Summit in October

Photo credit: Emma Kauldhar

“Michaela’s expression of humility impresses me most about her,” Elaine DePrince told Women in the World. Her 20-year-old daughter endures 40-hour weeks with the Dutch National Ballet, whose junior company she first joined in 2013. As the only dancer of African descent in the group, Michaela’s company portrait, clear-eyed and compelling, stands out among the paler faces. On stage as a lead dancer, she shines.

To make it, Michaela DePrince first had to overcome a punishing early childhood. Born in Sierra Leone in 1995, the girl named Mabinty Bangur was three when her father was killed at the hands of rebels in the diamond mine where he worked, and her mother died from starvation and disease shortly after that, both parents victims of a vicious civil war that killed roughly 50,000 people. In her memoir, “Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina,” DePrince recounts being given up for adoption by an uncle who called her a “devil child” because she was hyper-intelligent and born with vitiligo, a skin condition that causes depigmentation. In the group home where she was placed, DePrince was Number 27: the least-favored child. When the orphanage residents were forced to flee to a refugee camp in Guinea, a trip full of horrors, she endured by holding on to a photo, torn from a magazine, of a “white lady … wearing a very short, glittering pink skirt that stuck out all around her.”

The image was of a French ballerina  — Magali Messac, she would later learn  — dancing en pointe.

The photo was the first thing Michaela handed to Elaine DePrince, a New Jersey writer and advocate, “who believes that children should not belong to individual countries,” according to her daughter. Elaine and her husband, Charles, adopted nine of their eleven children, including Michaela, whose interest in dance was fostered by her parents after she was adopted in 1999. She trained at The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia and, at 14, won a scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre in New York while starring in First Position, a documentary about a competition for a place at the school. Next, she joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem and, in 2012, made her professional debut in a performance of Le Coraire, playing Gulnare. Then came the Dutch National Ballet in 2013, the release of her book (co-authored by her mother), and magazine spreads in Glamour and Vogue Italia, for whom she recently posed. A film of her life, directed by Sanna Hamri, is in the works. In spring 2014, she performed David Dawson’s “mindboggling, beautiful, and exhausting” ballet, Empire Noir.

“I dance to bring joy to the audience,” she told Women in the World. “I never let them see my pain, but only my excitement.”

DePrince spent her summer traveling in Florida and Georgia, teaching classes in dance schools that meet the needs of underserved communities. She hopes to eventually sponsor a free dance school for girls in Sierra Leone, but for now, DePrince is focused on training with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam and making a return to the stage of the Women in the World summit in London this October.

At the 2013 summit, DePrince danced to raise awareness of children in war zones, the importance of adoption without racial or ethnic barriers, and the scarcity of black ballerinas. This year in London, DePrince will advocate for women and girls facing adversity, especially the victims of female genital mutilation, which affects 88 percent of women in her native Sierra Leone.

“[Female genital mutilation] was 95 percent at the time I lived there,” she says. “If I had not been whisked away and brought to the U.S.A., I undoubtedly would have been one of its victims.” Michaela acknowledges that she embodies her adopted country more than her homeland and thinks she will be “ready to cope with all the feelings evinced by [Sierra Leone]” when she’s older.

Much of her success, she says, comes from strong role models: a teacher in the orphanage “who invested time in me,” those in the ballet world who helped her hone her craft, and especially her mother.

“My mother is a very powerful woman. From her I learned … courage [and] strength. I learned to reach out to others,” she explains.

Elaine DePrince, a disabled woman, was 52 years old when she adopted four-year-old Michaela. By then, she had lost two of her adopted sons — one to hemophilia, another to HIV — and lost a third shortly after that. Her six adopted African daughters (three of them survivors of the war in Sierra Leone, three of the war in Liberia) act as sisters do. In her interview, Michaela brags about her sister Mia’s music. The girls fight over who will get to wear Elaine’s wedding dress (“Jestina, of course,” Michaela sighs). The strong family bond is apparent.

“I don’t believe that a national identity is of paramount importance to a child,” Elaine DePrince says. “It is the basics of belonging and being kept safe that are. I don’t think that a child of one color, cannot love a parent of another color.”

In the ballet world, the color of her skin makes Michaela DePrince an exception—many classical ballet companies are still stark white, despite an increase in conversation regarding diversity in the art. She hopes to be joined by more black female dancers, whose absence she describes as “culturally limiting.”

Her success is often tied with that of Misty Copeland, who recently became the first black principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year-history. Both are symbols of the black ballerina’s rise, but the women differ greatly, DePrince explains: she is 100 percent sub-Saharan African, whereas Copeland is of Italian, German and African-American descent. Physically, each has a unique skin color and body type. “Even our upbringings differed dramatically,” she says.

“The fact that we are so different, but yet so often spoken about in the same sentence, it is an indication that George Balanchine’s peeled apple analogy has had a terrible effect on the ballet world’s perception of what a ballerina should look like.”

The “peeled apple analogy” is an infamous remark by a famed choreographer, who said that a ballerina should have the skin color of a peeled apple. It exemplifies the pervasiveness of racist attitudes that shaped ballet, but the world and its art are evolving. Now is the moment when the black ballerina shatters the glass ceiling, DePrince believes. To leave out black dancers will “sound the death knell of classical ballet in the future,” she says. “Companies filled with ballerinas with skin the color of peeled apple will become archaic.”

“Black ballerinas face pressure to be twice as good… [and] it is necessary for those of us in the vanguard to work very hard,” DePrince adds. “I hope that my image in the public eye will influence audiences to see my talent, my artistry, and my acting skills, rather than my skin shade.”

Being away from her support system is hard — “I get home sick” — but DePrince is thriving in Amsterdam. When she is not training, she visits Germany to see her boyfriend, with whom she traveled to Prague over spring break. Even during rare off time, she admits that her passion is always with her: “Sometimes I have nightmares that I can’t get my pointe shoe ribbons tied in time for a performance.”

Watch: Michaela DePrince performs at the 2013 Women in the World Summit

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