This profile is part of our series on the most impressive kids graduating from high school this year. You can see the full list here.Michaela DePrince is just a teenager, but she has already lived through more than most of us do in our lives. She survived a brutal civil war in the war-torn African nation of Sierra Leone as a child, which left her orphaned.
Many thought she would never leave the orphanage, where she was tormented, often called cruel names like “Devil Child” due to a disease called vitiligo which caused irregular white splotches on her skin.
“I was physically and emotionally abused in the orphanage because of my vitiligo,” DePrince wrote to us in an email. “It took a long time for my [adopted] mum to convince me that I wasn’t ugly.”
Then one day her luck changed. An American couple, Elaine and Charles DePrince, arrived at the orphanage and adopted Michaela, then four years old.
DePrince said that she has very little memory of the civil war in Africa, but she does remember the incident that sparked her love of ballet: While in the orphanage, she found a picture of a ballerina in a magazine, tore it out, and quickly hid it in her underwear.
“She looked so happy,” DePrince told ABC News of the ballerina. “That’s the only thing I lived for–to become this person, to be exactly like this ballerina.”
Once in the U.S., DePrince enrolled in ballet classes and forged ahead to a successful dancing career. When she was just 13 years old, she earned a full scholarship to the prestigious American Ballet theatre’s Summer Intensive program in New York City. Soon after, she won a full scholarship to the Youth America Grand Prix, an annual ballet student competition. DePrince went on to study ballet at the Jacqueline Onassis School at the American Ballet theatre in New York City for about eight hours a day, while still attending a cyber high school, Keystone National High School.
“Ballet is my passion,” Michaela wrote to us in an email. “I live it and breathe it. What I need to survive is food, water, shelter, love and ballet. If I didn’t have any one of them I’d probably wither away.”
Today–over a decade later–she is seeing her dreams come to life. She graduated from the prestigious Jacqueline Onassis School at the ABT, she has appeared on “Dancing with the Stars,” and she has performed on stages around the world. She is also a star in “First Position,” a ballet documentary that explores the lives of children in the cut-throat world of ballet; the documentary premiered in early May.
Yet despite all of this success, DePrince has felt the effects of racism in her ballet career.
“Being a dark black ballet dancer, there’s a lot of pressure on us, ” Michaela told ABC News. “I feel like I have to work 10 times harder than everyone else.”
She is determined to break down the unfortunate–and often unspoken–race barriers that define the ballet world. DePrince said that she hopes to play the white swan in Swan Lake one day, hoping that people see past racial stereotypes.
Though she barely has any free time for herself, she tries to squeeze in some normal teenage activities when she can. Besides dancing, she loves swimming, reading, camping, canoeing, knitting, singing and dancing with her sisters, and putting on makeup. (Her mother told us that she loves makeup so much that when she was a little girl, she used markers when she didn’t have access to real makeup.)
She also loves working with kids. She worked as a teacher’s assistant for two years in the Young Dancer’s Program at ABT, and said that she is looking forward to teaching ballet to little kids.
This month, Michaela is travelling to South Africa to dance the role of Gulnare in Le Corsaire with the South African Ballet Theatre. She will return to the U.S. in late July, and will then begin rehearsing with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who she will perform with throughout the year.
Watch an interview with Michaela on ABC News:
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