Michaela Deprince’s Turning Pointe

Michaela Deprince’s Turning Pointe

the time she was four, Michaela DePrince had endured
hardships that most people would struggle even to imagine. Born as
Mabinty Bangura in war-torn Sierra Leone, she was three when her
father was killed by rebel forces and when her mother, refusing to
eat so her daughter would have food, died of starvation. Left at an
orphanage by an abusive uncle, she became known as ‘number 27’ and
was tormented as a ‘devil child’ because of a condition called
vitiligo which made patches of her skin lose their pigmentation.
Michaela became close with one of the teachers at the orphanage,
only to witness her brutal murder and the mutilation of her
pregnant body.

It was soon after this trauma that Michaela found a discarded
magazine with a picture of a ballerina dancing en pointe. This
image, providing a glimpse of a much happier existence, was to
shape the rest of her life. “The ballerina in the photo on the
magazine cover exuded happiness and contentment. Somehow I
concluded that if dancing made her happy, it would make me happy as
well.” Michaela’s dream began to take shape on the day she and her
best friend from the orphanage were adopted by an American family
and given a new life in New Jersey. Recognising her obsession with
ballet, Michaela’s adoptive parents enrolled her in dance classes
in the US. Their continuing support and Michaela’s passion and
determination have paved the way towards her becoming the youngest
ever dancer at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and now, at the age of
20, a member of the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Michaela’s
incredible story has been detailed in the documentary First
Position and in her memoir Hope In A Ballet Shoe: Orphaned by War,
Saved by Ballet. Here she talks to SUITCASE about rising from the
ashes of war, encountering racism in her adopted country and
achieving joy through dance

SUITCASE MAGAZINE: What does the moment just before you enter
the stage feel like?

MICHAELA DEPRINCE: That moment is reserved for
focusing on the character I portray. I don’t chat with my friends.
I don’t think about my make-up and costume. I think about becoming
my character. At that moment I’m no longer Michaela DePrince.

Do your past experiences still play a part in your everyday
life? Do you carry your history onto the stage

Now 16 years have passed since I was that little orphan girl,
Mabinty Bangura. I am Michaela DePrince, a beloved daughter, a dear
sister and someone’s girlfriend. I don’t dwell on my history unless
I am asked about it. What I do carry onto the stage is my passion
for dance, many years of ballet training and my work ethic. My work
ethic I attribute to my father, who has always been a hard worker,
who made sacrifices for all of his 11 children. My parents have
been my greatest influence and they more than anyone influence

Ballet is incredibly hard to break into. How has race played a
part in your casting and contracts? Have attitudes changed or do
they still have a long way to go?

I regret to say that attitudes still have a long way to go in
the world of American classical ballet. It is difficult for a
‘black’ female to break into classical ballet in the United States,
and even more difficult for a ‘blacker’ female like me to do so.
When I was 17 years old and auditioned for the Dutch National
Ballet, I was stunned to learn that I was accepted. My experiences
with rejection by the U.S. classical companies had convinced me
that I was not a good dancer.

Two years have passed since I entered the Dutch National Ballet.
I danced my first year as a member of the junior company and my
second as an élève. This year I had expected to sign my third-year
contract as a member of the corps de ballet, but I was delighted to
skip that stage and be offered a contract as a coryphée for my
third year. In the Netherlands my race does not play a role in my
casting or contracts. Though it breaks my heart that the country of
my adoption has not accepted me as a ballerina, I am honoured that
the people of the Netherlands do. Here my colour does not have a
negative impact on my dancing or casting.

Do you see yourself as someone who is helping to implement
change in dance, to help people see talent before skin colour?

I am determined to implement change in dance and I want people
to see talent before skin. When I was a little girl my mother
bought my sister and me the video Ruby Bridges, a movie about a
very bright six-year-old black girl who integrated the white
schools of New Orleans in 1960. I decided then that I wanted to
make changes in ballet…to be the Ruby Bridges of dance.

Do you still feel your Sierra Leonean heritage? Do you plan to
return and how does it make you feel when you hear about the
ongoing traumas in the country?

I tend to feel guilty when I think about the trials and
tribulations of my native country. I often wonder at the blessing
that came to me when my American parents decided to adopt me. I
would definitely not have survived if they hadn’t because I had a
terrible bacterial infection when my mama arrived to meet me.
Unfortunately the war in Sierra Leone disrupted the nation’s
heritage. I think of my heritage as American, but this doesn’t
prevent me from wanting to help my people. When I am older and more
able to do so I would love to start a free art school for Sierra
Leonean children.

What message do you hope that people take from reading your

I hope that people all over the world take three messages:
first, one should not give in to despair, but must try to rise up
despite adversity; second, if you do succeed, you should make an
effort to give back to the world in the same measure you take and
third, remember the difference that education and training makes in
the life of a girl and her future children. Without the education
of women the development of countries will not succeed.

You’ve already accomplished one of your childhood goals and at
such a young age. What else do you hope to achieve in the

MDP: Oh! There’s so much to achieve in this
world. I’ve learned this from my mother, who is 67 years old, still
setting goals, and still reaching them! Besides my career as a
ballet dancer I want to teach, encourage and make the lives of
others better.

SM: What advice would you give to other young women who feel
like they are being treated as ‘number 27’?

I would like to tell other young women who feel like they are
being treated as number 27…do not allow yourself to be. Set goals
for your life. Dream dreams for your life. Tell yourself that you
can be number one.

SM: What does celebration mean to you?

Celebration? I believe that it means overcoming adversity and
achieving joy. And I express it best in my dance.