DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jun 21 2018

Ballerina Dreams: From War Orphan to Dancer

by Camille B

We are bombarded every day with news stories that can be sometimes disheartening or just plain depressing, so you could agree that it’s refreshing when you stumble across one that makes you smile and gives you a good feeling inside.

Michaela DePrince’s life story is one such, rekindling hope and courage within the human spirit and touching even the most calloused of hearts.  It’s a story of triumph over tragedy for anyone who’s ever had to face seemingly insurmountable odds or told they were less than for whatever reason, be it color, race, gender, ethnicity or handicap.

Though it reads like a fairy tale, Michaela would be the first to tell you that it’s not.  As you read her memoir you realize that her story is one of dedication, perseverance and survival. Born in Sierra Leone in 1995, during the country’s bloody civil war, her given birth name then was Mabinty Bangura. After losing both parents at the age of three (her father to the war and her mother to illness), Michaela is placed in an orphanage where she is faced with harsh and sometimes inhumane treatment by the women there, mostly because of her unusual skin pigmentation condition called vitiligo. They believed that the white spots on her dark skin were evil or a curse, and she was soon labeled “the Devil Child.”

It is hard to imagine, but the kids at the facility were ranked in order of favoritism. “They ranked us,” said Michaela. “Like number one was the favorite child and number 27 was the least favorite…I was number 27.” For her, being last on the list meant that she was the last child to get food at dinner, the last to receive clothing etc.

She quickly became friends with another little girl, number 26, whose name was also Mabinty, and who had found herself at the bottom of the “special” list because she was left-handed and wet the bed. Together, the two Mabintys shared a grass mat to sleep on at bedtime, their rice at mealtime and, since they were always blamed for everything anyway, decided to both take the blame so they could have their time-out together.

There were many days when, teased by the other children and missing her parents, Michaela would sit at the orphanage’s gate and cry. It was on one of these occasions that a gust of wind blew a page from a magazine up against the gate. It was a dance magazine depicting the picture of a beautiful woman in a pink tutu and pink slippers. She said that what she remembered most about the photo was how happy the woman looked. “It was not just the fact that she’s a ballerina,” said Michalea. “It’s that she looks happy. And I wanted to be happy. If what she was doing made her happy, that’s what I wanted to do.”

The next day, her teacher explained that the woman in the photo was a famous ballerina, and Michaela wanted to know if she too could one day become a ballerina, to which her teacher replied yes. If she took lessons, worked hard and practiced every day, it was definitely possible.

It was not long after that the children learned that people from America were coming to adopt some of them. Her friend, number 26, was one of the lucky ones. An American family chose her and sent her an album of photos. But no-one was coming for number 27. There was actually little hope that she would ever be adopted because of her skin condition. “Why would somebody want to adopt the Devil’s Child?” they said.

Across the sea in New Jersey, Elaine DePrince and her husband Charles were getting ready to adopt. They had previously adopted three American boys who tragically, all had died of AIDS from contaminated blood. Even though they were devastated, Elaine did not let that stop her from opening her heart and home to another child who needed a family. She and her husband made preparations to adopt Mabinty. What they didn’t know was there were two of them. Elaine was surprised when she got a call from the adoption agency asking, “Which Mabinty are you adopting? We have two of them.”

She was told that twelve different families had refused to take the other Mabinty because of her vitiligo. She did not hesitate. “We’ll take her,” she said. “I really don’t have a problem with spots, after dealing with AIDS.”

She remembers getting to Africa to adopt the two 4-year-olds, and meeting an angry, almost defiant Number 27. “She was standing there with her arms folded really angry. I think… she just thought there was gonna be more rejection ahead for her.” Michaela also recounts the moment when Elaine took both their hands and said to them, “I’m your new mama.”

It would have been rather difficult to have two Mabintys, so Elaine re-named both girls after her late son Michael who had encouraged her and Charles to adopt in Africa. Number 26 became Mia Mabinty DePrince and number 27 became Michaela Mabinty DePrince.

Michaela now felt closer to her dream, and one of the first things she did was to show her new mother the page from the magazine that she still had with her. “I couldn’t believe that I had adopted an orphan from Africa who wanted pointe shoes!” Elaine laughed. “I had to promise her she could dance.”

And she kept that promise, signing both girls up for ballet lessons. Michaela took it seriously from day one, and even at a young age was said to be laser-focused on becoming a professional ballerina, even with all the obstacles that were going to come her way–the first being her skin condition. At her first show she was terrified that people could see her spots from the audience, and felt that if they were able to, in her child’s mind, it meant the end of her dancing. She asked her new mother to see if she could see the spots from the audience and Elaine told her that from where she sat it just looked like pixie dust. Michalela’s response was, “Oh good. Now I can be a professional ballerina.”

Even after that, it was still and uphill battle, as she was still faced with obstacles and prejudices because of the color of her skin. She had never known anything about racial intolerance but quickly learned, when she experienced it not just in the neighborhood around her but in the world of ballet as well. In one instance, a teacher whose opinion meant a lot to her said to her mother, “We don’t like to waste a lot of time, money, and effort on the black girls. When they reach puberty, they develop big thighs and behinds and can’t dance ballet anymore.”

But for every person that put Michaela down, there was someone there waiting with an encouraging word, to help her keep her head up. The following week another teacher told her. “If you keep working hard, I don’t see any reason why you can’t one day become a world-class dancer.”  So with focus, hard work, practice and dedication, she persevered, not allowing the racism, jealousy and bigotry to break her spirit. “The only way I could survive,” she says. “Was to prove everybody wrong.” And this is exactly what she did.

Today Michaela dances classical ballet. After studying at the American Ballet Theatre at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, in New York, she moved up the ranks, joining first the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2012, then the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company in 2013 and finally the Dutch National Ballet where she was promoted to coryphée in 2015, and to grand sujet at the beginning of 2016. She is presently a soloist for the Dutch National Ballet.

Michaela was featured in an award-winning documentary by Bess Kargman called First Position, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, as well as a dancer in Beyonce’s album Lemonade. She has also been an ambassador for War Child since 2016, an organization which helps children living in war zones. Together with her mother, she has written the memoir Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina as well as a children’s book Ballerina DreamsBoth books, as well as the documentary First Position, can be found in the DCPL library system, where you can read more about her remarkable journey.

First Position- DVD

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