With a mega-watt smile and eyelashes to die for, one would never assume 17-year-old Michaela DePrince narrowly escaped a harsher life. Born in Sierra Leone at the height of the civil war, DePrince vividly remembers the day she learned that rebel fighters murdered her father.
“Usually, I would go with my father every single day to the trading place. For some weird reason, I didn’t go that day and I stayed with my mom,” DePrince said. “My uncle came back [to the house] and said for us to come outside and he explained how in the barrel was my father.”
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DePrince and her two sisters, Mia and Mariel, were then taken to a local orphanage.
Their mother, unable to fend for herself, later starved to death.
At the orphanage, all the children were given numbers. Mariel was No. 1, which meant she was the most desirable to adoptive parents; Mia was No. 26, because she wet the bed; and DePrince was No. 27, the last of all the orphans.
“I was the least, least favorite,” she said. “It was because of my vitiligo, and they thought I was the Devil’s child because of it.”
Vitiligo is a condition that causes depigmentation of the skin, which also led to deep confidence issues for DePrince.
“When I got adopted, it took me forever to build up my self-esteem. I used to hate looking in mirrors. I would cover up…it was a lot.”
DePrince says growing up it was difficult for her to talk with her adoptive mother, “Cry Bloody Murder” author Elaine DePrince, so dance was her only outlet.
“Being a dancer for me is the only way that I can express myself. When I was younger, it was very hard for me to talk to people and open up to people,” the 5’4″ dancer said. “So dancing was how I got through the day, and I was able to communicate with my mom and [get away from] my terrible past. It was just a way for me to forget about it and just be in my own little world.”
Despite everything, all hope wasn’t lost. Before DePrince and her sisters were adopted, she saw a photo of a ballerina ripped from the pages of a magazine. For DePrince, that crumbled-up photo meant hope and purpose.
DePrince decided early on she wanted to dance and dedicated her life to perfecting a craft she describes as something “you get to fall in love with every single day.”
But everyone hasn’t always been supportive.
“One of my teachers told my mom, “She’s really good and she has a lot of talent, but we don’t really invest a lot into the Black dancers because they all end up getting fat and big thighs and big boobs.’”
DePrince considered quitting — for a week. She then laced up her point shoes and got back in the dance studio.
Her resilience paid off: Since August, DePrince has taken her talents to the Dance Theatre of Harlem. As the youngest member of a new crop of dancers, DePrince and 17 others will showcase their talent Oct. 20 at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville, when the 43-year-old ballet company begins touring the country again for the first time in eight years.
Inspired to bring new opportunity to the lives of the young people in the Harlem neighborhood in which he grew up by the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Arthur Mitchell and the late Karel Shook founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the basement of a church in 1969. The Dance Theatre of Harlem was the first major ballet company in the world to make black dancers a priority.
The company has performed around the world transforming lives and changing perceptions of millions of people. Tours sponsored by the U.S. Department of State include South Africa China and Russia, to name a few. The DTH School and education programs impact over 10,000 people of all ages each year.
Since then, The Dance Theater of Harlem has toured worldwide, and made stops in South Africa for Nelson Mandela, China, Russia and the White House in 2006 for former-President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
DePrince’s goal is to become a prima ballerina, but hopes to do more with her life.
“I just want to inspire people.” DePrince said.
Watch DePrince’s story in the documentary “First Position” here: