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Michaela DePrince: Excelling Beyond Adversity

by Rachel Vancelette for Urban Mindz

Originally given the birth name Mabinty Bangura, 24-year-old ballerina Michaela Mabinty DePrince was born into a Muslim family in Sierra Leone during one of the most ferocious and brutal civil wars in West African history. ‘War-torn’ is often used to describe the civil war in Sierra Leone, a historic departure point for the transatlantic slave trade. But ‘war-torn’ is a paltry euphemism that cannot even come close to describing the perpetrated crimes against humanity, mass killings, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers in the name of contested “blood diamonds.” Over 50,000 died, including Michaela’s parents, and close to 320,000 orphans were left during the conflict, among the over 2 million in Africa still orphaned each year according to UNICEF.

Born with a skin condition called vitiligo, the lost patches of color on her tiny body caused her to be called the “devil’s child” by a cruel uncle who abandoned her at an orphanage at 4 years old. Taunted, abused, malnourished and ranked number 27 as the “devil’s child” in an orphanage of 27 children, Michaela was continually mocked, derided and beaten - only to then watch the only orphanage caretaker who was decent to her there be killed with the machete of a soldier, who then attacked and almost killed Michaela as well.

Hopeless and desperate, this malnourished tiny person one day found a magazine that had blown onto the property of the orphanage, and the rest became history. It had a photo of a ballerina wearing toe shoes, and although she had no idea what any of it meant, a vision was born in her to become whatever ‘it’ was. Michaela kept the page hidden on her person and the inspirational photo gave her the dream of who she wanted to be, and she began practicing and secretly twirling on her toes. Shortly after, an amazing intervention occurred to change her life forever.

A compassionate, loving Jewish couple from Cherry Hill, NJ, Elaine and Charles DePrince, who were rescuing and adopting orphans in Africa at the time, arrived to the orphanage where Michaela was housed and immediately adopted her to become the 8th of their eleven children, 9 of whom were also adopted. Amazingly, they also adopted number 26 from the orphanage as well, another little girl close to Michaela, also named Mabinty.

Mental health experts for years have believed no child as abused and neglected as little Mabinty could ever develop normally. She is an astonishing example of proving everyone wrong. “The only way I could survive was… to prove everybody wrong,” she says. Outcomes from abandonment and neglect, experts said, would breed every functional deficit one could imagine, emotionally, physically and mentally. That may still be true in many cases, but recent discoveries about brain development, growth and plasticity are challenging this premise at places like the PNP neuroplasticity center in Dallas, Texas where they can recover healthy brain function in challenged individuals. The changes in the brain from mistreatment, cruelty and violence can heal, especially with extraordinary love and support.

So how did Michaela DePrince rise to become a world-renowned ballerina who has performed all over the world and is now the soloist for the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam? Maybe it was divine intervention, good karma or something else that was responsible for her survival and destiny to teach us all about courage, perseverance and forgiveness. Her determination combined with her love of dancing alone would have eventually led Michaela to become who she is today, but, in fact, it was her new parents who recognized and supported Michaela’s amazing talent as a dancer from the beginning.

To encourage Michaela to pursue her passion for dance, her parents enrolled her into the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, PA at the age of 4 years old. After several years of dance lessons at the Rock School, Michaela earned a scholarship to attend the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York City. In 2011, she was profiled in First Position, a documentary about six ballet students preparing to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, where Michaela won the full scholarship to attend the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. She has since danced as the youngest member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; performed with the South African Ballet Theatre; and rose from the rank of an éleve for the Dutch National Ballet to working her way to coryphée, grand sujet and finally becoming a soloist in 2016.

With the help of her mother, Michaela later went on to co-author “Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina” in 2014. Talking about her life has helped her begin to heal the deep scars and given her a cause to begin assisting others. “The first time I ever talked about my story, it was very difficult to recover… I’m so happy my mum was involved – she was smart to write it all down when I was little. If I’d had to relive everything for the book, it would have been a lot harder.”

DePrince has danced her way to ballet heights rising above the prejudice and obstacles placed in ballet’s dance world, which has discriminated against black dancers for decades, making them wear makeup for non-black women and pink tights, for example. Overhearing directors explain that there was no reason to invest in ballet dancers of color, because they would “get fat and grow big breasts,” or “simply didn’t belong” still occurs today, yet is more concealed. Thankfully, much of this change is due solely to the astonishing talent of African and African American ballet dancers who remain undaunted by all the walls and bias put in their way.

It takes enormous inner and outer strength to be a ballet star and Michaela’s determination and amazing gifts have allowed her to soar. Despite obstacles, racial barriers, a horrific beginning, and a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2017, she continues to rise above the stereotypes of beauty and has exceeded her expectations to reach her goal of becoming a premier ballerina.

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