Michaela DePrince: From war orphan to teen ballerina

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Story highlights

Sierra Leonean ballet dancer Michaela DePrince lost both of her parents aged three

She was adopted by an American couple and became a ballet dancer in the United States

DePrince made her professional debut last month in South Africa

She wants to change traditionally held views about black ballet dancers

CNN  — 

Professional ballet dancer Michaela DePrince was just three years old when she saw a ballerina for the first time.

She was standing near the gate of the orphanage she was living in the West African country of Sierra Leone when she found a magazine with a female ballet dancer on the cover.

The image of the beautiful, smiling ballerina mesmerized the young orphan, who had just lost both of her parents.

“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.”

At the time, DePrince – or Mabinty Bangura as she was then called – had no idea what ballet was. But she kept onto the picture, dreaming of one day becoming as happy as the ballerina on the magazine cover.

“It represented freedom, it represented hope, it represented trying to live a little longer,” she recalls. “I was so upset in the orphanage, I have no idea how I got through it but seeing that, it completely saved me.”

Shortly after, DePrince was adopted by an American couple and began a new life in the United States. Today, at the age of 17, she is one of the ballet world’s rising stars – last month she traveled to South Africa to make her professional debut in Johannesburg.

“I worked very hard and I was en pointe by the time I was seven years old,” says DePrince. “I just moved along fast because I was so determined to be like that person on the magazine and she was what drove me to become a better dancer, a better person – to be just like her was what I wanted to be.”

Read related: Sierra Leone ‘will become aid donor in next 50 years’

Tens of thousands of people died during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war from 1991 to 2002. The horrors of the decade-long conflict defined DePrince’s early memories: Her father was murdered by rebels while her mother starved to death shortly after.

One of her uncles took her to an orphanage hoping she’d be adopted and taken to a safer place.

But life in the orphanage was tough for the three-year-old girl.

She remembers being called “the devil’s child” and being ill-treated by the orphanage’s carers because she had vitiligo – a skin condition that causes blotches of lightening skin. Children in the orphanage were given numbers ranking them from the most favored to the least – DePrince was ranked 27th out of 27 children.

“I didn’t get enough food, I didn’t get the best clothes, I got the last choice of toys,” she says. “I was in the back and they didn’t really care if I died or whatever happened to me.”

Hopelessness and despair engulfed DePrince even further when she witnessed the murder of one of her teachers at the orphanage, a pregnant woman “who was the only person who actually took time to care for me,” she says.

“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.”

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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.

Passionate about dancing, she earned a full scholarship to the prestigious American Ballet Theater’s summer intensive in New York aged 13.

A year later she took part in the youth America Grand Prix, the biggest ballet competition in the world, where she walked with yet another scholarship.

The teenage dancer also became the subject of “First Position,” an award-winning documentary about the competitive contest and performed on hit TV show “Dancing with the Stars.”

Graced with talent and strength, DePrince says she has had to work even harder to get accepted into the rarefied world of ballet dancing – a predominantly white preserve.

Read related: South African ballet dancer confounds racial stereotypes

She says she almost quit dancing when she was 10 years old after a teacher told her mother that 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.”

But those words only served to make DePrince even more determined.

“I’m still trying to change the way people see black dancers, that we can become delicate dancers, that we can be a ballerina.”

DePrince also says she’d like to start an art school in Sierra Leone. She wants to use her remarkable story to teach little girls on the continent that if they have a dream they can definitely achieve it.

“Even though you might have had a terrible past and even though you might have been through a lot and might be still going through a lot, if you have something that you love and that makes you happy and that gives you that feeling inside to continue growing up and that makes you want to have a good future then you should focus on that and not focus on the negative.”