Michaela DePrince: War Orphan to Ballerina
||26 August 2012 07:00
Nicola de Chaud
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
Michaela DePrince: "I feel like dancing is a part of who I am. I don't know what I would do without it. It is like I live and breathe it 24/7. I just... I don't know, dancing is just who I am, and ballet is who I am... and I just want to be a ballerina. And I want to share my love for dance with other people."
Like most little girls the world over, Michaela de Prince dreamed of being a Ballerina.
Dirk Badenhorst (CEO: SA Mzansi Ballet): "Michaela is a true ballerina, first and foremost, but there is so much more."
She's lived a life unlike most other little girls
Angela Malan (Choreographer): "She is unbelievably controlled. She has an inner strength that is remarkable for a 17-year-old. And I think it comes from her past."
Michaela DePrince is a child of war. She was born in Sierra Leone at the height of the 12 year civil war.
Michaela: "My father was a trader and he also brought all the money and all the food."
Her father was shot dead by the rebels.
Michaela: "It is really all such a blur. All I remember, pretty much, is when my father died we didn't have anybody to bring us food... my mother died... It was... I didn't really remember that part, but I remember her dying. I was in just such a bad state because of my father, and then my uncle, he took me to the orphanage and left me there. The 'aunties' is what we called them, the caretakers, they really hated me because of my vitiligo, which is a loss of skin colour pigmentation. And they just thought that, you know, that there was something wrong with me, that they couldn't touch me and that they didn't want to be near me. So they called me 'the devil's child'."
Michaela was told she would never be adopted.
Michaela: "They ranked us by numbers: number one was the favourite and number 27 was the least favourite."
She was ranked number 27.
Michaela: "In the orphanage I found a magazine of a ballet dancer en pointe; I found it right outside the gate and I took it. And when I saw it thought - before I took the cover off - it was just so mesmerising and so beautiful... it was just nothing I'd ever seen before."
Her fairytale dream was born.
Michaela: "It was just like, 'Oh, my God, there's another world out there! Maybe I can go to that world and escape from this one.' And I showed it to my mat mate, which is my sister now, Mia. She just told me: 'Just wait! We're going to get adopted, we're going to have this great family and then maybe you can be like this person.' And if was just... it saved me."
Elaine DePrince (Michaela's mother): "We always wanted a large family and I said to my husband, 'Why don't we adopt from a war-torn country in Africa? Nobody deserves to be stuck in a war zone.' We were in the process of adopting Mia and I said to him: 'There's a second little girl and they can't find a family for her because she has vitiligo, she has pigmentation and everyone is afraid to adopt her.'"
Michaela: "She has such a big heart; she is such a loving person that, you know, I have no idea where I'd be without her."
Elaine de Prince didn't hesitate to take Mia and Michaela home with her to Pennsylvania.
Michaela: "I assumed that every 'white' person has pointe shoes in their suitcases - and tutus! (laughs) So when she arrived I kept looking through her stuff. She was wondering why I was looking so I took the picture out of my underwear and I showed it to her. And she understood."
On arrival in the United States, Michaela immediately started taking ballet lessons.
Michaela: "I remember being so excited. I was so nervous that I couldn't breathe. I was like having an anxiety attack. I didn't know if I was going to get my pointe shoes that day. I didn't know if I was going to get my tiara or tutu or what not and then I get there and we start class..."
Michaela had a natural talent for ballet and progressed very quickly to dancing en pointe.
Michaela: "After a few years when I was seven years old I got my first pair of pointe shoes. They were very tiny. But it is... actually it is bad to put such a young kid on pointe but at the same time I was so strong and so determined to become that person on the magazine."
Elaine: "I remember when she was six years old and had her first recital. And she said to me: 'Mom, could you see my spots?' I said: 'No, not at all. They're not noticeable.' She says, 'Oh good.' She says, 'I just wanted to make sure because if you can't see my spots from the audience then I know I can be a professional ballerina.'"
Michaela: "I don't know if it is very healthy because sometimes I'll make myself dance for 10 hours until I get that step perfect. But, you know, that's just how I am."
Discipline and determination has paid off for Michaela.
At 14, she entered an international ballet competition, and made it through to the finals in New York City.
Michaela: "The New York City finals is where everybody goes. It really lets people see us and it really lets people, you know, see what we're capable of in performances."
It was at the Youth American Grand Prix, that Dirk Badenhorst of South Africa Mzanzi Ballet, first spotted Michaela
Dirk: "And I was completely blown over by this young girl because she's not just a ballerina, she's just so much more on so many different levels. She was then 14 and she was dancing like an 18... 19-year-old already."
Not only was she seen by professional head-hunters from across the world, but she was also given a two-year scholarship to study at the American Ballet Theatre.
Michaela: "I was so excited when I got the scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school."
A year later, Dirk Badenhorst Invited Michaela be part of a world first ballet performance in South Africa.
Angela: "We wanted to bring her here to show that you can come from any circumstances in life and if you really want to pursue your dream, that it can happen."
Choreographer and Ballerina Angela Malan worked with Michaela to prepare her for her first professional performance with a full ballet company
Dirk: "Michaela is back in Africa for the first time since she left as a little girl of four, doing her first full-length ballet as a principal with a full company and we are very, very proud to have that happen in South Africa."
Michaela: "I think it is great that I am back in Africa, I think it's wonderful that I'm having my debut and I'm just really glad that I'm here."
Michaela spent time at South Africa Mzanzi's outreach programme in Alex, Mamalodi and Soweto, as part of her mission to inspire young ballet hopefuls.
Dirk: "She is truly inspiration in the way she has dealt with the negatives of her past. And that, for me, is what we need to showcase as South Africans - 'white' and 'black' South Africans."
Michaela: "You like to do plie? I like to too.
Dirk: "But particularly the young kids that we're work with at our development schools and our outreach programmes, they need to see that they have an opportunity to become that."
Michaela: "You know what we do before a performance? We all hold hands and we try to send our energy. So what I'm going to do it I'm going to squeeze your hand and then you squeeze her hand..."
Dirk: "Because we so often have teachers teaching them that are 'white' and privileged and these kids don't make the connection that actually they can be the next Michaela."
Michaela: "I'm just hoping that, you know, they see me as someone they can look up to, but I also want them to know that I'm not... I had to work hard to get to where I am today."
Michaela spent time preparing for the opening performance in July.
Angela: "I mean, to get up in a full-length ballet for your first time in a principal role - I was a little anxious, but she arrived and she has handled it very well.
Michaela: "I am very determined. That is how I've always been, when I'm into something I give it 100%. Because dancing in Sierra Leone, because of that magazine, that's what saved me, and I feel that if I fail at dance then I fail at life in a way."
Angela: "So this young girl has handled so much more than an opening night at the ballet. So I was nervous, but also thinking, 'She's just going to be fine.'"
At 17, Michaela opened the season of Le Corsaire with SA Mzanzi Ballet.
Michaela: "Exciting, I was so nervous. I think it is the audience and just the adrenaline, I absolutely love performing on the stage. I just have so much fun. You know, I communicate with the audience by dance, and I want them to feel like they're dancing with me, like they're on stage with me."
Angela: "Definitely a role model for our development children... for us, for everybody, to show purely that it doesn't matter where you come from, you can do it."
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