Updated: Jun 17, 2020
In my imagination, it was a humid day in Sierra Leone, the atmosphere hung heavy with the menace of war, but four-year old Michaela, now accustomed to the rain of bullets and bombs, walks up to the fence at the orphanage where she lived. I am listening to Michaela DePrince’s Ted Talk delivered in Amsterdam. She says, “A big wind blew a magazine right onto the gate at the orphanage. I reached out and I grabbed it and I saw something, this amazing creature, this person I had never seen before. She was on her tippy toes and in this beautiful pink costume. But what really struck me the most was that she looked so happy. I had not been happy in a long time, so I thought to myself, you know, if she is happy because this is what she is doing then maybe I could be happy too someday. I had to be this person. So, I ripped the cover of the magazine and put it in my underwear.” Michaela had such a limited interaction with happiness that she made an immediate association of happiness to ballet. Michaela was born in 1995, when her country was enduring a war that lasted from 1991-2002. As with any war, especially one so prolonged, there were widespread atrocities - children were abducted and women were raped. By the time she was four, Michaela had lost both her parents. That piece of paper floating so carelessly in the wind brought with it a dream to be happy, a dream to dance.
“Upon arrival in America,” Michaela shares in an interview with Skalvan, “I showed her the most precious thing I had, I pulled it out of my underwear and gave it to her. She understood right away and said ‘you will dance.’” At this point Michaela knew nothing about ballet and its discrimination against black people. She just wanted to be happy. Unfortunately, she would experience the injustices in what she imagined to be a happy world.
Michaela has vitiligo, an acquired skin disorder characterised by enlarging depigmented patches that appear lighter than the rest of the skin. In Africa, as in many parts of the world, the skin condition is stigmatized and those who have it experience psychological and psychosocial stress. Michaela shares, “They thought I was the devil’s child. I was ridiculed and harassed because my skin looked this way. My parents knew I would never get married because of this condition. They believed I would never get married so my uncle left me at an orphanage because he knew he could not get a bride price for me.” Besides the ravages of war, she had a slim chance of local adoption due to her skin condition. Her adoptive family is American. I recall a child with vitiligo from my primary school. We never associated her condition to spirituality or evil, but she was expected to be timid even though she was very outgoing. The other children would often say “I’d be quiet so I don’t stand out, if I were her.” Also, some students believed she was contagious and refused to sit next to or play with her.
Added to her vitiligo, Michaela’s blackness turned her into one of the least favourite students. The world of ballet is a white space. There are more white ballerinas than black ones; and the black females who stick with it, rarely get lead roles or become soloists. Michaela crashed that ceiling and broke that barrier, but it wasn’t easy. When asked how at her interview on BBC HardTalk in 2017, she answers, “I worked hard [and] I practised and practised every single day.”
Michaela’s success leaves me in awe. Apart from her age, which is close to mine, she has overcome an extremely tumultuous life. Her story gives me pause to think about the effects war has on its most vulnerable victims – children. The effects of war on children include trauma, physical disability, death, the loss of parents, loss of language and tradition, homelessness, displacement, malnutrition and rape among many others. Girls, in particular, live at the ‘mercy’ of rebel groups or soldiers who have abducted them and made them sex slaves. Michaela experienced many of these effects. For her the trauma led to post-traumatic stress disorder, with hypersensitivity and terrifying dreams. Ballet is an expressive art form that demands that the dancer allow their emotions to shine through their body. Michaela struggled with expressing herself because of the many things she has gone through. She shares, “That is what has made my career a bit more difficult, I think. I could have been more artistic sooner if I wasn’t having to have that wall of emotions.” But her experiences, although tragic, added an intimacy to her talent and skill. She adds in a BBC interview, “You can use the things that you have been through to connect with the audience.”
Her hard work finally paid off at the age of ten when she got the lead role in The Nutcracker. While very excited and practising Michaela says she overheard her dance teacher say, “She is not going to do it because America is not ready for a black Marie.” Could this teacher have been saying that the investors and audience were racist and could not stomach the idea of a black ballerina so good that she could score a huge role? Perhaps she was saying the ballet world in America wanted to remain a white space so black dancers had to be denied the roles they deserved for this cause. Michaela recalls a director saying, “We don’t put a lot of effort into the black girls because they end up getting fat.”
To succeed as a ballerina, she has had to face racism and discrimination that many Black girls end up internalizing. She says, “Sometimes I felt like I did not belong.” Her feelings are the result of consistent reinforcement of the notion that ballet is not for black people. For example, ballet costumes have for a very long time, come in colours that complement the skin tone of white dancers. Michaela danced in pink tights that were supposed to be nude and match her skin. Her mother did not tolerate this. “My mom taught me how to dye my shoes brown.” Michaela now wears brown tights for which she says “For years and years I had to fight for it and now I can finally wear brown tights. I’ve had people react saying ‘It is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen’, and that really affected me because for once in my life I felt like myself on stage.” The word ugly is not foreign to black women, society has used it to abuse us emotionally to the point where some black woman want to be lighter, to have narrow noses, and smaller hips.
Today, Michaela is more than a survivor of war. She is an achiever that has crashed through ceilings and broken through barriers in the world of dance. As a well-established ballerina, Michaela is a guest principal at Jo’burg Ballet in South Africa. At the age of 17 she performed with the Dance Harlem professional company and was ranked as a soloist at the Dutch National Ballet at the age of 23. Michaela has collaborated with the artists like Beyoncé; and was named an ambassador for War Child, Netherlands in 2016. Michaela Mabinty DePrince is a phenomenal Future Black Female, she reminds us that nothing is impossible, regardless. She carries the strength that is necessary for social change. A resilience that overcomes rejection.
Alan O (2017) Michaela DePrince on HARDtalk May 2017. Available at: https://youtu.be/soSLTRu9evU [Accessed 06 December 2019]
BBC Sport (2019) The ballet dancer who fought to wear brown tights | Michaela DePrince |Rebels | BBC Sport. Available at: https://youtu.be/Qwy8lKy3pdQ [Accessed 06 December 2019]
Çelik, N., & Özpınar, S. (2017). Children and health effects of war Being a war child. Cumhuriyet Medical Journal, 639-641.
Jacolbe , J. (2019, February 20). JSTOR Daily. Retrieved from daily.jstor.org
Skalvan (2019) Michaela DePrince's inspiring story | SVT/TV 2/Skalvan. Available at https: //youtu.be/J72hG4hQrTQ [Accessed 02 December 2019]
Tedx Talks (2014) From ‘devils child’ to star ballerina| Micheala DePrince | TEDxAmsterdam 2014 (SIGN LANGUAGE). Available at https: //youtu.be/gaeQ_uWBzNE [Accessed 02 December 2019]