Ballet Dancer Michaela DePrince: From Sierra Leone to the Stage

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. There are few things more painful when you're growing up than to be called last for a team or a club. But for 17 year old ballet dancer Michaela DePrince, it was tougher than that. She lived in Sierra Leone during the country's civil war. Rebels killed her father. Her mother and her three brothers also died. And in the orphanage in Sierra Leone, Michaela was, more or less, an untouchable. A devil child, they called her; last in line for everything. But despite those overwhelming challenges, Michaela has emerged on top. Michaela DePrince joins us from Johannesburg, South Africa. And Michaela will explain in a moment why you're there in Johannesburg. First though, tell our listeners what it was that kept you going through those tragic and desperate years in Sierra Leone. It was a photograph you saw in a magazine.

DePrince: Yes. It was a photograph. It was a picture of a ballerina. And seeing that dancer, seeing it at such a terrible time in my life that""it just completely gave me hope. It just, you know, I thought to myself if I ever got adopted, maybe I could be just like this person. And I just kept holding onto that magazine until I got adopted. And now I'm a ballerina""well, hoping to become a ballerina.

Werman: Well, but "hoping to become,"  I think is a little modest. Tomorrow, tell us what you'll be doing in South Africa.

DePrince: It will be my debut as a professional ballet dancer. I will be preforming [unclear] with the South African ballet. I will be preforming "Le Corsaire,"  and it will be my first full length classical ballet.

Werman: Congratulations to you.

DePrince: Thank you.

Werman: Tell us though, what was it about that photograph of that ballerina that so captivated you. Was it the colors, was it her gesture, her pose? What was it?

DePrince: I had never seen something like that before. Of course I've seen magazines, but I never saw someone so elegant and so beautiful. And the fact that she was on her toes, that was so amazing to me and I didn't understand how she could possibly do that. And I just thought, "maybe I could be like that. Maybe I could be on my toes."  And I remember practicing being on my tippy toes and actually, in the long run, it really, really helped me with pointe.

Werman: Now, there are other chapters, Michaela, obviously in between that you need to tell us about. You didn't go from Sierra Leone straight to South Africa. What happened when the civil war ended in Sierra Leone?

DePrince: When I was there, people were getting killed, and I had no idea why. I didn't understand why until I got adopted, until my mother explained to me what was going on. And even then, it didn't make sense. I think war is a""I don't know. I don't even want to get into it. But, it was terrible being there, being called names. I lost one of my teachers there. I even have a scar because of that incident. It was just""it was an awful time for me.

Werman: I mean, it's a very grim story what happened to your teacher, a favorite teacher of yours who was pregnant and the rebels, they eviscerated her body.

DePrince: Yes, because she had a baby girl and not a baby boy. In Sierra Leone what they did was if it was a boy, they would keep the boy and train him into becoming a rebel. But it was a girl, so they were angry about the fact that it was a girl, so they cut my teacher's arms and legs off and left her there. And I was trying to save her at that moment, so I went underneath the gate and there was a little boy there and so he cut my stomach too. And I have a scar because of it and I just pretty much blacked out after that. It was just awful seeing someone that cared for me so much, especially in my situation that nobody liked me except my best friend, and the aunties calling me names and telling me I was worth nothing and that I was, you know, the devil's child. It was terrible for me.

Werman: Michaela, you're telling me this so matter-of-factly, rushing through the details, that it's like you don't want to talk or think about it anymore, which is totally understandable. Is it constantly on your mind, though?

DePrince: It is not constantly on my mind. It's the""whenever I do talk about it, it just brings back memories. And I try, and I've been trying ever since I was 6, to just push that out of my mind because I don't want to focus on that anymore. I just want to focus on my future.

Werman: As we said earlier, you were always last in line for everything in the orphanage. But the girl who was right behind you at number 26 out of the 27 kids, you wanted her adopted too. Tell us about that. Her name was Mia.

DePrince: Well, she and I had the exact same first name, which is why we both got adopted. We were mat-mates . The reason why she was number 26 was because she would wet the bed and she was left-handed. And the fact that she was left handed, they made her come before me, not be able to have enough food, get terrible clothes, get terrible toys. It's just, ugh! I don't understand why they treated the kids that way. I really don't.

Werman: But she's your sister now, right.

DePrince: Yeah, the reason why she's my sister is because my mom, she called the agency and asked, "well we would like to adopt so-and-so,"  and they were asking, "well, which one?"  because I had the exact same first name. And they were like, "well, no one wants this little girl because she has spots on her neck and she's a devil's child and they don't want a kid like that."  So she called my father""he was in Japan""and she woke him up at night, and she asked, "Is it okay if we adopt this other little girl?"  And it's really funny because my father thought he was dreaming, so he just went with it and said yes. And he called my mom the next day and said, "um, I had a dream you asked me if we could adopt this other kid and it's funny because I said yes. Is it true?"  And she's like, "yes, you said yes, so I'm going to do it."  And so I got adopted because Mia and I had the exact same first name and I'm so grateful that my mom has such a big heart and is so accepting of people and adopted me too.

Werman: Now, you've had numerous opportunities to dance in the US, including a ballet theater of Harlem, I understand. But, in terms of ballet, you've also faced some challenges. You've heard multiple times, for example, that the world of ballet is not ready for a black dancer to take on certain roles.

DePrince: I'm actually going to dance in Harlem in August, but yeah, I've been told a lot. I've had teachers who have supported me and said, "you know what, we see something in you and we think you're going to make it."  But then I've had those teacher who have told me, well you don't have the right body type and you're not going to make it. And I was 10 years-old and one of my teachers told my mom, "we don't put a lot of effort into black dancers because they get fat when they're older and big boobs."  And it's just crazy how people have that mindset of black people and they just can't get it out of their mind, and it's very upsetting sometimes.

Werman: Did that make you want to kind of prove them wrong and push beyond those stereotypes?

DePrince: Well, the first time I heard it, I believed them. I was 8-years old the first time that happened and I just thought, "wow, maybe I should quit!"  And I just thought, "maybe they're right. I think they're right because they're dancers and they're teachers and they're adults."  But then, I was almost 11""10 or 11 or something""and my brother Teddy was telling me, "you know, Michaela, I see a gift in you and I think you're going to make it."  He was also a dancer. Him telling me that, I was just like, "you know, maybe you're right and I can make it!"  And so I stopped focusing on all those negative things teachers were telling me and even dancers were telling me and I just tried to focus on dance as much as I could. And I had just so much determination of proving all those people wrong.

Werman: Michaela, how much, going back now to Sierra Leone, I'm curious to know how much your dreams of being a ballerina and that picture you kept with you tucked in your underwear, how much of that sustained you through those dark years in Sierra Leone? Do you think it was crucial to your making it out alive?

DePrince: I think it was the reason why I made myself stay alive. I had terrible malnutrition. I had a terrible hernia at the time, which no one took care of. And having that picture and my mat-mate, and my sister now, it saved me. That ballerina saved me from losing my teacher. It saved me from being treated so badly. And then when I got adopted, that feeling from when I first saw that magazine has always been with me and that's also saving me; because all I want to do is dance and all I want to do is become a professional ballerina and share that love with kids from Sierra Leone when I'm older. I do want to open an art school for dance and I just want them to have the exact same opportunity that I had.

Werman: 17 year-old Michaela DePrince, a survivor of the Sierra Leone civil war. We look forward to seeing you on the stage for years to come Michaela. Congratulations, and thanks for speaking with us.

DePrince: Thank you so much.

Marco: What you're hearing is the "Pas du trois"  from Le Corsaire. Michaela will be preforming in Le Corsaire at the Joburg Theater in South Africa, her professional debut. You can see Michaela du Prince pirouette and pliÃ? © in a production of La Esmeralda. The video is at theworld.org

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