Adopted Sierra Leone Orphan Finds Home in Dance Theatre of Harlem (Video)

Michaela Deprince, 17, came from the horrors of Sierra Leone to become a ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Whenever we witness someone not only pursuing their dream, but fulfilling it, our hearts are made full. The story we ballet world is the beneficiary to the tragic but beautiful story of a Sierra Leone orphan who was able to rebuild her life from the ruins of her past tragedies.

Michaela Deprince, born Mabinty Bangura, is the youngest ballerina dancing with the Dance Theater of Harlem, but life started for her during the infamous civil war of Sierra Leone which spanned an entire decade from 1991 to 2002.  During that period, it is estimated that 50,000 were brutally killed…Deprince’s father was one of them.  Her mother starved to death soon after.  Her and her sisters were sent to an orphanage where she was treated like an untouchable.  She was the most disliked of the children in the orphanage and only one woman (who was pregnant) took an interest in her.  But one day the soldiers came and they killed the woman.  Deprince told CNN:

“She was going outside the gate and I was walking with her, I was going to say bye, and then these three rebels come — two older and a younger one and they see that she’s pregnant and what they used to do is if it was a boy, they would keep the baby, if it was a girl they would kill the mother and the baby,” she says. “So they cut her stomach and they saw that it was a girl, so then they were angry and they cut her arms and legs off and left her and the baby there. I was trying to save her and so I went underneath the gate and the little boy saw all these older people doing these things and I guess he wanted to impress them and thought it was funny, so he stabbed me and so I have actually a scar from it and it was a black out after that — I have no idea how I survived that, it was awful.”

Deprince was only three years old when it happened.  At four, she was adopted by author Elaine Deprince and her husband, and began a new life in New Jersey.  But a magazine cover with a ballet dancer on the cover stayed with her:

“I was just so fascinated by this person, by how beautiful she was, how she was wearing such a beautiful costume,” she remembers. “So I ripped the cover off and I put it in my underwear.”

Now at the age of 17, Deprince is getting her chance to fulfill her ballerina dreams.  With hard, intensive work, she has flourished in the ballet world.  Her achievements include:

But DePrince’s life changed once and for all in 1999 when at the age of four she was adopted by a couple from New Jersey.

-a full scholarship to the prestigious American Ballet Theater’s summer intensive in New York aged 13.

-participated in the youth America Grand Prix, the biggest ballet competition in the world, where she walked with yet another scholarship. She also became the subject of “First Position,” an award-winning documentary about the competitive contest

-performed on hit TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”

-last month she made her professional debut in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Deprince was also aware of how white the ballet world is and mentioned that there are only two black premier ballerinas.  She almost quit when at 10 years old a teacher told her mother:

“…’she didn’t want to put “a lot of effort and money into the black dancers because they just get fat and get big boobs and big thighs.”

Who does that?  But fortunately, she was supported and she had the drive and passion to get past that teacher’s insecurities.  Now she dances with those in the top of the game in the 43-year-old Dance Theater of Harlem. Newsone reports that since August, DePrince she has been dancing with a new corps of dancers and is the youngest member of a new crop of dancers with the company.

Check out the rest of her inspiring story.

-J.C. Brooks

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