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The Unstoppable Ballerina

by Malcolm Jones
Michaela DePrince

Jordi Matas

A young dancer’s journey from Sierra Leone to the heights of American ballet.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the middle of a conversation in the New York City apartment she shares with her parents and four sisters, ballet dancer Michaela DePrince suddenly stands up and extends her left leg out to the side and then the right. “Excuse me,” she says, “but I have to crack my hips.” Sure enough, one audible pop follows another. “I’m sorry,” she says, sitting back down. “I have to do that or I can’t, like, walk. I’m always hearing from older dancers that dance completely ruins their bodies. The things we do, it’s disgusting. If you could see my feet, they’re so gross.” It’s a visceral reminder that ballet dancers—like athletes—not only think with their bodies but contend against their bodies in ways mere mortals barely comprehend. But oh, the things those bodies can do. Sitting back down at the dining-room table, she absentmindedly cracks her knuckles. She does it fast but with a distinct rhythm, a plangent, percussive riff like something from a kalimba. Effortlessly, she’s made a nervous habit almost musical, not art but certainly artful. Even in the little things, this is no ordinary young woman.

At 18, Michaela has experienced more than most do in a lifetime. Dancing since she was 6, she won a scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of the American Ballet Theatre after competing against 5,000 other young dancers in the Youth American Grand Prix, an annual competition showcased in the acclaimed 2011 documentary First Position. One of six aspiring dancers the film profiled, Michaela, then 14, supplied the most heart-in-throat moments when she stubbornly danced through a case of tendonitis that threatened to kill her career before it even started.

Currently the youngest member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, she has already toured on three continents. Of her most recent performance, in Don Quixote in Johannesburg, dance critic Adrienne Sichel wrote, “There are not many things left to inflame a grizzled ballet critic’s heart, but witnessing the birth of a remarkable ballerina will certainly fit the bill …  from Kitri’s first sizzling, perfectly stretched grand jeté (the first of many), [Michaela] made this daunting principal role her own … The standing ovation which greeted these dancers, and the Sierra Leone-born American in particular, was richly deserved.”

Almost as impressive off stage, Michaela displays a mature poise striking in someone her age. Two days after a 23-hour trip from Johannesburg, with a rehearsal day sandwiched in between, she betrays only a trace of jetlag during an hour spent thoughtfully parrying an interviewer’s questions, often with questions of her own. Asked for one word to describe herself, she says, “Do you mean as a person or a dancer?” She picks “spontaneous” for her dancing. For herself, she chooses “mellow,” a word that makes her mother, Elaine, laugh. “Michaela, you’re the most intense person I know. Even your boyfriend wouldn’t describe you as mellow.” “Right now I’m very mellow,” Michaela insists. “Honey,” Elaine replies, “that’s just because you’re exhausted.” For a split second they manage a pretty good impersonation of a normal mother and teenage daughter.

No matter how much she may ever achieve, the most stunning fact of Michaela’s life will always be that it ever happened at all. Born Mabinty Bangura in 1995 in the midst of Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, she was orphaned at age 3, her father murdered by rebel soldiers and her mother felled by Lassa fever. Her uncle took her to an orphanage where, although plainly gifted (she could already read and write Arabic), she was scorned and beaten for her rebelliousness. She was also ostracized for the unpigmented spots freckling her chest and neck—a skin condition called vitiligo that the women working at the orphanage took for a curse. They called her “the devil’s child.”

The women working at the Sierra Leone orphanage called her ‘the devil’s child.’

In 1999 everything changed. Elaine DePrince and her husband, Charles, adopted Michaela and Mia, Michaela’s best friend from the orphanage. Both girls were 4. On their first night together, Elaine ran bubble baths in the hotel bathroom and laid out the new clothes and shoes she’d brought, to the great delight of both girls. But then, Elaine recalls, something odd happened: Michaela began systematically ransacking her mother’s luggage.

“All the clothes and toys I’d brought were pulled out of the suitcases,” Elaine says. “At that point, neither girl spoke English, but I could tell she was looking for something. Finally, she ran into the bathroom and brought me this grimy picture of a ballerina torn from a magazine that she’d carried around for months.” The picture had convinced Michaela that everyone in America went around on tippy-toes all the time. She’d been searching the suitcases for her new mother’s ballet shoes.

“I found the magazine lying on the ground outside the gate of the orphanage,” Michaela says. “I’d never seen anything like that before, so I took the cover off and put it in my underwear because I had nowhere else to put it. I brought the rest of the magazine to share with everybody else, but I kept the picture with me every day until I got adopted. I thought I was just worth nothing and nothing’s going to happen. This person in the photograph symbolized hope for me. It was something I hadn’t felt for such a long time.”

The photograph disappeared when a suitcase went missing on the flight to the U.S., but the dreams it embodied remained alive. Michaela says just the memory of the picture was enough to keep her going through seven years at the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, then two more at ABT. “I’ve had my bad patches where I wanted to quit ballet, but I would say to myself, this is what I’ve been dreaming of for so long, and this picture has kept me going so long, I really need to keep trying. Nothing else has ever made me feel like that.”

Growing up in the warm embrace of a big family—the DePrinces have reared 11 children, nine of them adopted—Michaela never lacked for encouragement. But in America, she faced a new enemy: the blinkered racism of the overwhelmingly white world of classical ballet. “It was very hard sometimes,” she says, “because I knew I deserved a role, but they wouldn’t give it to me, because you just never saw a black Marie in The Nutcracker or a black Cinderella. But it’s pushed me to do better and work harder.” Ultimately she did find colorblind teachers, especially at the Rock School, where artistic director Stephanie Wolf Spassoff encouraged not only Michaela’s talent but her desire to be an agent of change: “She wanted to break barriers, and to do that you have to be very good. When you watch her dance now, it’s as if the music were breathing through her.”

After First Position came out, followed by an appearance on Dancing with the Stars, Michaela found herself famous enough to be stopped on the street by strangers. It made her uncomfortable. “I was overwhelmed with the fact that people wanted me to be the perfect role model and were expecting so much,” she says. “I just turned 18. I think I want to be a role model, but I don’t know if I actually can be. I’m not really an adult yet, so they need to understand that.”

Her roadmap may be sketchy, but she knows precisely where she wants to wind up: as a dance company’s principal ballerina. Once her career is finished, she hopes to start a dance school in Sierra Leone: “All kinds of dance, not just ballet. I just want to share what I have with the kids there, to give them a piece of what I have. We’re all here for a reason. We have to finish what we were meant to do, even if it is something little.” Her modesty is as becoming as it is unbelievable, since it’s so plainly impossible to imagine this determined young woman ever settling for “something little.” She’s dreamed big all her life and seen dreams past all imagining come true. Why would she stop now?

From our April 12, 2013, issue; An Unstoppable Ballerina’s Journey.

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