Michaela DePrince on her journey from war orphan in Sierra Leone to world-class ballerina
For Black History Month, espnW celebrates the first-generation African-American athlete experience and the diversity of the African diaspora.
I never thought being black would be an issue. When I was brought to an orphanage in Sierra Leone [in the late 1990s] during the civil war, they called me the devil's child because I had vitiligo. I thought people would hate me for my skin condition. I thought that was going to be the only issue -- not because I was a black girl.
I was adopted when I was 4 years old with my best friend, Mia. When we came home to our house in New Jersey, we felt like we were princesses. It was insane and different. Our first time going to a supermarket was the highlight. We had years and years of starving, and we were very malnourished. To go to a supermarket was an incredible experience. It wasn't until I was older that I started noticing people watching us. My adopted parents are white, and they had these two little black girls with them. My mom, Elaine, knew how people would react because we were black. I remember that some of the kids in our neighborhood weren't allowed to play with us because we were black.
We were very well-behaved children. We never screamed in restaurants and we never did anything bad. We would read our books. We'd have our coloring books, always. My parents raised us very proper; I'm lucky. But it didn't matter because people just noticed the color of our skin.
And my mom didn't know how to work with black hair, but she tried her best. Of course, we tried to get as educated on black hair as possible. And it wasn't my mom's fault because she didn't know as much as any black woman would know to teach her children. Things like that, I would be made fun of because of my hair, because it wasn't the way the other black girls wore it.
We had a very diverse family as well. I have two brothers from the Philippines; there are six of us who are from Sierra Leone in West Africa. My mom grew up in the States, and she knew what we were going to face here. And my mom, who was also a civil rights activist, educated us on black history. I loved it when she read to me about Ruby Bridges. I just adored Ruby Bridges. I remember reading the civil rights book "Selma, Lord, Selma" and watching a lot of African-American movies.
However, I got a bit lucky in ballet. I had some black girls in the studio to look up to. There were only maybe four or five black girls in the whole school, though I was the only black girl in my class and I always felt like I had to fit into a box. I overheard one of my teachers say once, "We don't put a lot of effort into black dancers because they all end up getting big boobs, a big butt and big thighs." I have no boobs to save my life, so I guess I disappointed him in that.
Ballet teachers would often say that I have a very athletic look. Therefore, I had to do more of the powerful roles instead of doing delicate characters. Though I eventually had the opportunity to take on the lead role of Odette in "Swan Lake" while I was at my junior company, almost six years ago. For me to be able to do such a beautiful role was incredible, and I never thought I'd have that opportunity because everybody told me I'm too athletic.
I knew they were saying that because I was black. Because I would see other dancers who were white that had the same body type. I remember when I auditioned for companies, I knew I didn't get in because I was black. I knew I was good enough.
Or I'd hear things like, "We already have an African-American dancer in our company and one is enough." Then they'd say, "Well, it's very distracting to see one black dancer onstage because then she's going to stand out more." But if you put more black dancers in all together, it won't be as distracting, right?
If my teachers or friends treated me a certain way because of my skin color, I'd continue to hold my head high. I was always a feisty little girl. That was how I continued to pursue my dream of becoming a ballerina. Plus, I always wanted to prove everyone wrong. I'd say to myself, "Just let them watch."
Luckily, I now have the platform to speak up for the next generation of little black girls pursuing ballet. I remember teachers instructing me to pancake my pointe shoes to look lighter so that I could fit this perfect image. I'm fortunate I was able to have my parents show me that it's OK to be proud of my skin color. Loving my black skin is OK.
Things have evolved. Now I can wear brown tights, while before it was such a fight. I would have to wear pink tights just like the other girls. The reason we wear pink tights in ballet is that the color is supposed to complete the line, but if you have a brown upper body and you're wearing pink tights, that destroys the idea of one line. Now my director lets me wear brown tights and brown pointe shoes. I feel like I can be myself onstage. I feel like I can go out there and I don't have to feel like there are two different people onstage. I can just put on my [store-bought] brown pointe shoes and go onstage and represent who I am and what kind of artist I am without feeling like I'm somebody else.
We now have Misty Copeland at the American Ballet Theater, who is pushing and changing the boundaries. We had Lauren Anderson at the Houston Ballet. I believe Lauren was the first principal to wear brown tights at a big classical company. Even talking about it I'm getting chills. I want young black girls to have more dancers to look up to. I want to be able to spread more poppies in a field of daffodils.
Michaela DePrince, 24, is a Sierra Leonean-American ballet dancer. With her adoptive mother, Elaine DePrince, Michaela authored the book "Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina." Currently, Michaela is a soloist at the Dutch National Ballet and an ambassador for War Child, an organization that works to improve the resilience and well-being of children living with violence and armed conflict.