Amazing Ladies in 2019: Ballet Dancer Michaela DePrince

There are a lot of amazing ladies out there paving the way for a better tomorrow. They inspire us, they give us hope, and they galvanize us to make changes of our own. This week we are highlighting some of the amazing ladies of our day. Next up? Michaela DePrince.

Michaela DePrince is a 24-year-old ballerina. Born in Sierra-Leone and adopted by an American family, she was discouraged from dancing because of the color of her skin. Now she is a soloist at the Dutch National Ballet. You might also recognize her as the dancer in the "Freedom" section of Beyoncé's Lemonade

DePrince was born in Sierra-Leone in a time where the country was torn apart by civil war. Both of her parents died before she was four, and she was abandoned by her uncle in an orphanage because she had vitiligo. Vitiligo is a skin condition that makes the skin appear spotted and depigmented in places, and in Sierra-Leone, they considered it a curse of the devil. When the orphanage was bombed, she fled to a refugee camp at only four years old. In 1999, she was adopted by an American couple, Elaine and Charles DePrince, along with another girl from the refugee camp named Mia. 

Michaela was inspired by dance and wanted to become a ballerina. While still in Sierra-Leone, she had found a magazine page with a ballerina en pointe that had given her hope. Her newly adopted parents wanted to give her every opportunity to pursue her dream and enrolled her in ballet classes. But Michaela faced a lot of difficulties in the ballet world. Ballet is known for being very white. The pale, lithe ballerina is the  image that most companies want. Major story ballets even have what is called the "White Act," where large groups of women all dressed in white dance to symbolize ghosts, swans, or spirits. Black female dancers were often excluded because company directors thought that a black dancer would stick out too much and ruin the uniformity of the corps de ballet. She faced double jeopardy because of her vitiligo. DePrince was even told when she was eight that she could not perform as Marie in The Nutcracker because "America's not ready for a black girl ballerina."

She didn't let that stop her. Michaela trained relentlessly, training intensely at The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia which is known for turning out strong performers. She competed at the Youth American Grand Prix competition, winning a scholarship for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onsassis School of Ballet at American Ballet Theatre, one of the best companies in the world. She was one of the stars of the documentary First Position about the experience. Later, at 17, she joined Dance Theater of Harlem as a professional, becoming the youngest professional dancer in the history of the company. 

"I believe that my race has played a part in not getting contracts," DePrince said in an interview with Clyde Fitch. "North American companies tend to shy away from black female dancers who are darker than a brown paper bag. I couldn’t get into classical companies in the U.S. and Canada. I would make the cuts in auditions and would be one of the last five dancers standing when the audition ended. I’d expect to get an offer, but I never would. After enough of these auditions I began to think that I was truly a dreadful dancer."

But now at 24, she is now a soloist at Dutch National Ballet, which is the second highest rank a dancer there can have. DePrince notes that European companies have been more inclusive of people of color, and that DNB has given her both contemporary and classical ballet roles. She has even been cast in leading roles in the "White Acts" that were so often the reason for her exclusion. Her powerful jump, dizzying turns, and incredible stage prescence has put her at the forefront of the company, which she most certainly deserves. 

Her book Taking Flight tells of her determination to be a prima ballerina and of all the hurdles she has had to leap along the way. Although she is not there yet, she has certainly astounded critics and fought back against racism in ballet. Her success shows just how pointless racial barriers in dance are, and can help inspire other young dancers to follow in her footsteps. Pretty amazing? We think so.