‘I went from being a war orphan to a ballerina’

Michaela DePrince

Sierra Leonean-American Michaela DePrince was orphaned at the age of three. She went on to join the Dutch National Ballet. DePrince features in a book, The Female Lead, which is designed to inspire a new generation of girls

Sierra Leonean-American ballet dancer Michaela DePrince was orphaned at the age of three. Born Mabinty Bangura to a Muslim family, she was sent to an orphanage where the ‘aunties’ who cared for the children believed that her skin condition, vitiligo, was a curse and called her the ‘devil’s child’. In 1999, DePrince was adopted by a US couple.

Inspired by a picture of a ballerina she saw on a magazine in Sierra Leone, DePrince trained as a ballet dancer, winning a scholarship for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre. In 2013, she joined the Dutch National Ballet. Her story features in a book called The Female Lead.

Image: Michaela DePrince photographed for The Female Lead by Brigitte Lacombe

“My uncle took me to the orphanage after my father was shot and my mother starved to death. He knew he’d never be able to get a bride price for me, because of my vitiligo. There were 27 children in the orphanage and we were numbered. Number 1 got the biggest portion of food and the best choice of clothes. Number 27 got the smallest portion of food and the leftover clothes. The aunties thought I was unlucky and evil because of my vitiligo. I was number 27.

I was always dirty. They used to braid my hair too tightly because they wanted me to be in pain and they told me I’d never be adopted. The only moments I was happy were because of my friend, who was also called Mabinty.

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We slept on the same mat and she used to sing to me and tell me stories when I couldn’t sleep. She was number 26.

I thought nothing good would ever happen to me and then, one day, I found a magazine outside the gate of the orphanage. On the cover was a picture of a ballerina in a tutu. I thought she was a fairy on her tippy toes in her beautiful pink costume. But what struck me most was that she looked so happy. I hadn’t been happy in a long time. I ripped off the picture and hid it in my underwear.

I thought nothing good would ever happen to me. One day, I found a magazine outside the gate of the orphanage. On the cover was a picture of a ballerina in a tutu

We had a teacher who came to give us English lessons and I showed it to her. She explained to me that the girl was a dancer. I was walking with this teacher one day when some rebels came towards us. A boy was following them and another truck full of them around the corner. They had been drinking, I think. They saw Teacher Sarah was pregnant and started betting whether she was having a girl or a boy. So then they thought they’d find out and they got their machetes and cut her open. Her baby was a girl. They killed her and my teacher in front of me. The small boy thought he should imitate the older ones and he cut my stomach.

Later, the rebels occupied the orphanage and threw us out. We walked across the border to Guinea. There were plans for most of us to be adopted, but not me. Finally, there was a plane to Ghana. I was miserable because I thought I would never see my best friend, number 26, again. Then a lady with blonde hair, which seemed amazing to me, and wearing bright red shoes grabbed my hand and my friend’s hand too, and said: ‘I’m your new momma.’ Number 26 became my sister Mia.

My parents made me see that it is OK to be different and to stand out. ‘Be a poppy in a field of daffodils’

When we got to the hotel, I started looking through my momma’s luggage for my tutu and pointe shoes. I thought all Americans were doctors, models or ballerinas and she would have brought my clothes with her. I didn’t speak English so the only way I could explain was to take the picture out of my underwear and show her. She understood straight away. She said I could dance if I wanted to.

When we got to America, I started going to ballet class once a week, then twice a week.
I found a video of The Nutcracker and I must have watched it 150 times. I begged my mother to take me to a performance and I knew it so well that I could tell when they went wrong. By the time I was ten I was going to ballet classes five times a week.

I worried that my vitiligo would be a problem but my skin turned out to be an issue in a different way. A lot of people are still very traditional in their views and they want to see the same thing in the corps de ballet – white skinny dancers. Early on, my mother was told by one of my ballet teachers, ‘We don’t put a lot of effort into the black girls. They all end up getting fat, with big boobs.’

I have strengths as a dancer. I am muscular and I have strong legs. More importantly, I work very hard. I was lucky to be featured in the film First Position, which followed six dancers preparing for the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition for places at elite ballet schools. That helped me to get a place at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and it also meant I was seen by different directors. The director of the junior company of the Dutch National Ballet knew of me. I spent a year there before joining the main company.

I have strengths as a dancer. I am muscular and I have strong legs. More importantly, I work very hard

I was stigmatised as a child and I had to grow up very fast. I couldn’t show my emotions. Being adopted showed me that it was OK to be weak sometimes, that weakness can also be a kind of strength. Dancing can be very painful and exhausting, which is why it’s so important to have my family. My parents were able to convince me that all the people I love are not going to die and that, even when they do die, their love will always stay with me. They also made me see that it is OK to be different and to stand out. ‘Be a poppy in a field of daffodils.’

My sister Mia is a part of what I do every day and she and the rest of my family have helped me to appreciate a number of important things – it is possible for things to get better; it is a mistake to hold on to the past; you should laugh when you can; and you should look forward to the future.”

The Female Lead by Edwina Dunn with photography by Brigitte Lacombe is published by Ebury Press in hardback, £30.

The Female Lead interviews were conducted by Marian Lacombe, Rosanna Greenstreet, Geraldine Bedell, Hester Lacey

To watch The Female Lead documentaries or nominate a UK school to receive a free copy of the book and teaching materials, visit www.thefemalelead.com

Featured image: Michaela DePrince, photographed by Brigitte Lacombe

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