In only 16 years, Michaela DePrince was able to go from neglected orphan to internationally successful ballerina.
Born in Sierra Leone in 1995, DePrince’s parents died soon after her birth- her father was killed by rebel forces that had come to power after the national government collapsed, and her mother died of starvation soon after.
DePrince was then moved to an orphanage, where her skin condition made her a target for abuse. In the orphanage, the “Aunties” who looked after the children ranked them from 1 to 27, where 1 was the favourite and 27 was the least-liked child. Marked out as the ‘devil’s child’ by her vitiligo, they ranked DePrince 27th, and encouraged the other children to mistreat her.
DePrince took comfort from a photo of a ballerina wearing pointe shoes that she found in the pages of a western magazine. Captivated, she stuffed the picture in her underwear for safekeeping.
DePrince’s fortunes changed when an American woman, Elaine DePrince, came to adopt her friend, number 26. Elaine ended up adopting Michaela too, laughing at Michaela’s surprise that not all Americans wore pointed shoes like in her ballerina photo.
In the US, DePrince enrolled in dance school aged 5, later winning a full scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. Her dance career soon took off. She has danced with a range of companies, including the Dutch National Ballet, where she was the only dancer of African origin.
DePrince has used her platform to promote a variety of causes. In her memoir Hope in a Ballet Shoe, she used her fame to raise awareness about the poor representation of black women in classical ballet. She became an ambassador for War Child Holland in 2016, and visited refugee settlements in Uganda and Lebanon. In 2019 she held the ‘Dare to Dream’ gala for War Child, raising money for refugee children.
Rose is a first year Politics, Philosophy & Economics student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.