Michaela DePrince would be amazing if she were just a professional ballet dancer at the age of 17. The grace, skill, guts and discipline it takes to perform at the highest levels is a lifetime achievement indeed. But what makes this woman even more amazing is that she was orphaned by war in her home country of Sierra Leon.
DePrince lost both of her parents during the war, and saw ballet as an opportunity to escape the horror she’d experienced so early in her life.
“I was just so fascinated by this person, by how beautiful she was, how she was wearing such a beautiful costume,” she said. “So I ripped the cover off and I put it in my underwear.”
DePrince says that she had no idea what ballet was at the time, and simply kept the picture with her to dream of one day being as happy as the woman in the picture.
“It represented freedom, it represented hope, it represented trying to live a little longer,” she told CNN. “I was so upset in the orphanage, I have no idea how I got through it but seeing that, it completely saved me.”
DePrince had a chance to live in the United States after being adopted by Americans. Now, she is one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world, recently making her professional debut in South Africa.
“I worked very hard and I was on point by the time I was seven years old,” says DePrince. “I just moved along fast because I was so determined to be like that person on the magazine and she was what drove me to become a better dancer, a better person — to be just like her was what I wanted to be.”
Sierra Leon was hammered by horrific civil war from 1991 to 2002. Thousands of people were killed. DePrince’s father was murdered by rebels and her mother starved to death after her husband was gone. She was taken to an orphanage by one of her uncles, who hoped to keep her safe. She was only three years old at the time.
DePrince says that she was not treated well at the orphanage and was called “the devil’s child” because she had vitiligo, a condition that causes blotches on the skin. The children were ranked from the most favored to the least, and she was ranked 27th out of 27 kids.
“I didn’t get enough food, I didn’t get the best clothes, I got the last choice of toys,” she says. “I was in the back and they didn’t really care if I died or whatever happened to me.”
DePrince saw her life worsen when a pregnant woman at the orphanage was killed. She says that this was the only woman who ever cared for her.
“So they cut her stomach and they saw that it was a girl, so then they were angry and they cut her arms and legs off and left her and the baby there. I was trying to save her and so I went underneath the gate and the little boy saw all these older people doing these things and I guess he wanted to impress them and thought it was funny, so he stabbed me and so I have actually a scar from it and it was a black out after that — I have no idea how I survived that, it was awful.”
DePrince was adopted in 1999, where she moved to New Jersey. Since that time, she has been motivated to no end to be the best dancer she can possibly ever be. She won a full scholarship to dance at the age of 13 and just one year later, appeared in the Youth America Grand Prix, which is the biggest ballet competition in the world.
She says that she thought about quitting dancing when she was 10 because a teacher told her that she doesn’t want to put “a lot of effort and money into the black dancers because they just get fat and get big boobs and big thighs.”
That only made DePrince more determined to succeed, to change the stigma being placed on black dancers.
“I’m still trying to change the way people see black dancers, that we can become delicate dancers, that we can be a ballerina.”
DePrince says that she hopes to go back to Sierra Leon and give back to her community. She is now flying high and moving beyond her extremely difficult past. She wants to serve as inspiration to others who have had trauma in their lives, to let them know that anything is possible with hope and lots of determination.
“Even though you might have had a terrible past and even though you might have been through a lot and might be still going through a lot, if you have something that you love and that makes you happy and that gives you that feeling inside to continue growing up and that makes you want to have a good future then you should focus on that and not focus on the negative.”