Since the release of Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album, there have been questions about the identities of some of the women featured in the project, like Sierra Leonean Pro Ballerina Michaela DePrince.
We were first introduced to her in the documentary, First Position, which follows six young dancers working to gain a spot in an elite ballet company or school. Since then, she’s become a lighting rod in the ballet world in which so few black women are able to shine.
Despite her professional success, Michaela’s personal story is one of triumph. Her past was documented in the book she wrote with her adoptive mother, Elaine DePrince titled, War Orphan to Star Ballerina. In 2015, MGM acquired the rights to turn the book into a film.
Here’s a detailed summary of the ballet beauty’s amazing backstory.
-She was born in Sierra Leone, in 1995
-Both of her parents died in that bloody civil war that claimed thousands of lives in her home country
-After her parents died, her uncle dropped her off at an orphanage because he knew getting a good price for her as a bride would be far fetched because of the light patches on her neck caused by Vitiligo, a skin condition.
-She was also treated poorly by the women who ran the orphanage because of her vitiligo. They began calling her “The Devil’s Child” with the assumption that she was cursed. The 27 children at the orphanage were ranked based on how the women felt about them. That ranking determined how much food and care they received. The first child got the biggest portion of food and first choice for clothing. Number 27 got the least amount. Michaela was the last child, number 27.
-The 26th child became her best friend. “Number 26 was always in ill health, always sick, but she always had a kind heart,” said DePrince during her TedTalk. “Number 26 would listen to all my fears and all my dreams. Whenever I was scared she would sing to me.”
-Michaela one day found a magazine photo of a ballerina. She held on to that photo in her underwear during her entire time at the orphanage, and began to dream of being like the dancer in the photo.
-One day Michaela witnessed her pregnant teacher, Sarah, killed by rebels who took their machetes out and cut her stomach open. Since the child was a girl and not a boy, they cut off Sarah’s arms and legs. A younger rebel also cut Michaela’s stomach.
-Michaela and Mia, the 26th child, later became sisters when they were adopted by the same family from America. Not knowing a word of English, she showed her new mother the photo of the ballerina. Her mother told her, “You will dance.” She began taking lessons as soon as she got to America.
-When she was 10-years-old, her adoptive brother Teddy died of AIDS after contracting HIV from contaminated blood products used to treat hemophilia. He was 24. She was devastated.
-She eventually found peace in knowing that the people she lost were always with her.
-Her hard work in ballet eventually paid off when she made it into ballet companies. She eventually joined the Dance Theater of Harlem then moved on to the Dutch National Ballet based in Amsterdam.
Watch Michaela’s moving TedTalk about her story below.