A Lil Positivity: 17-Year-Old Michaela DePrince Survived Civil War In Sierra Leone To Become Ballet Star In U.S.

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Michaela DePrince

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.

Indeed, when Michaela stands before the mirror, rises en pointe, and then extends one leg straight up toward the ceiling, she radiates the quiet confidence of someone who could be royalty—a far cry from the defiant little girl known as Number 27. Today, Michaela sees her difficult early years as a source of strength. “I take what’s in my past and put it in my body,” she says. “My life is proof that no matter what situation you’re in, as long as you have a supportive family, you can achieve anything.”

What an inspirational story! We know Michaela is going to do even bigger things. We’re watching and rooting her on.

Source Photo Credit: Abbey Drucker

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