Taking that leap of faith

Michaela DePrince’s journey from civil war orphan to ballet star fame is the stuff of fairytale, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Taking that leap of faith

One day, as civil war raged in Sierra Leone, a little girl stood at the gates of the orphanage that had become her home following the murder of her father and the death of her mother from starvation.

She watched as hundreds of people hurried by, their possessions in wheelbarrows and baskets, fleeing the rebels and their random killing spree.

The dust-laden Harmattan wind was swirling and as the girl peered through the wrought-iron gates, a battered magazine blew threw its bars.

She picked it up and saw on the cover a white lady dressed in a pink skirt and pink shoes, standing on the tips of her toes. The girl had never seen anything like it.

“Someday I will dance on my toes like this lady. I will be happy too!” she shouted into the wind. It was her fourth birthday.

Today, that little girl, Michaela DePrince, is 20 years old and a dancer with the Dutch National Ballet.

Against all odds, the young Mabinty Bangura, as she was before she was adopted by an American couple, made her dream a reality. Now she has written a book, with her adoptive mother Elaine, about her journey which has already seen her address the UN, feature in an acclaimed documentary, make the cover of Newsweek, and perform on the US television show Dancing with the Stars.

The book, Hope in a Ballet Shoe, chronicles some of the distressing episodes in Michaela’s early life, including witnessing the gruesome killing of one of her favourite teachers at the orphanage.

“It was very difficult. The more I talk about it the less I focus on the emotions behind it. I don’t even go there. The first time I ever talked about it, it was very hard for me to recover. I just decided not to think about the bad things that had happened to me.”

However, Michaela felt the benefits of sharing her story and inspiring others outweighed the emotional cost.

“I thought a book would be a great way to reach out to people, not just to dancers but also those who have been adopted, and people who have lost hope. I wanted to show them they can accomplish their dreams and not let people tell them they can’t do something.”

One of the first things Michaela had showed her adoptive mother before they left Africa was the picture of the ballerina.

Elaine instinctively understood the strength of Michaela’s desire to dance and when they arrived back in America, wasted no time in getting Michaela lessons and bringing her to ballet performances.

While Michaela’s talent shone, however, it didn’t take her long to realise that she was facing another challenge — that of racism. After watching a performance of The Nutcracker on video, she asked her mother: “Mama, where are the black ballerinas?”

In the book, she talks about how when she tells people she is a dancer, they will often assume she is a hip-hop artist.

The attitude of many can be summed up in what she heard one mother of another dancer say about her: “Black girls just shouldn’t be dancing ballet. They’re too athletic. They should leave the classical ballet to white girls.”

Michaela says though, that she hasn’t experienced racism since she started dancing in Europe.

“It doesn’t affect me here [in the Netherlands]. I do have a separate costume because I’m the only black girl at the Royal Dutch National Ballet. Besides that, I’m just trying to focus on how I can be a better dancer; how I can be the artist I’ve always dreamt of being.

Everybody is different here and that’s why I like it as a company. Some other black girls have had teachers tell them to bleach themselves to make themselves lighter.

“You just have to accept yourself and if they don’t want you, try and find somewhere that suits you and where they want you for who you are.” While she would love to go back to the United States eventually, she feels the attention she has received there might work against her.

“People know my story now so I don’t know if they would accept me for me or for my story. The director of the Dutch National Ballet didn’t know who I was at all because the documentary [First Position] hadn’t come out in the Netherlands. I was really happy about that.”

Michaela found it hard to adjust to life away from her family at first and was very homesick when she arrived in Amsterdam, but is now embracing the experience. “I love it here and I really want to continue working here. There’s a lot of Russians, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Americans... it’s a very international company.

“The work we’re doing, it’s very challenging. You’re always trying to push yourself to make yourself better. They’ve given me an amazing opportunity to do that. I want to become the best artist I can be. I do eventually want to go back to Sierra Leone and open an arts school there when all my dreams are accomplished.”

In the book, Michaela writes about two women who have had a profound impact on her life — her adoptive mother Elaine, and the ballerina she saw on the cover of the magazine.

Why does she think the picture had such an effect on her? “What really struck me was that she looked happy and I wanted to look happy. I was very sad at the time.

“I also wanted to prove people wrong. She was doing something extraordinary and I wanted to do something extraordinary.”

While the picture was mislaid in transit from Africa, Elaine eventually tracked it down online. A Dutch journalist who interviewed Michaela managed to discover the identity of the ballerina. In a twist of fate, when the picture was taken the dancer, Magali Messac, was a principal at the Pennsylvania Ballet, where Michaela would dance in The Nutcracker 24 years later.

Michaela has since been in regular email contact with Magali and hopes to meet her. “ I tell her all the things I’m going through and what I’ve been dancing. She’s been very supportive. I was so surprised that she actually thought I was a good dancer and she’s still inspiring me today.”

Hope in a Ballet Shoe by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, Faber & Faber

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