By age three, ballerina Michaela DePrince – born Mabinty Bangura – wanted to die. Born in 1995 in Sierra Leone, she was orphaned after her father was killed by rebels, and her mother died of illness and starvation.
DePrince was abandoned at an orphanage. Due to a skin condition she has, known as vitiligo, the women who ran the orphanage dubbed her “the Devil’s Child,” and actively kept her last in the pecking order of receiving food and clothes. There were 27 children in the orphanage, and they were ranked in order of open favoritism. DePrince was number 27.
The young girl befriended number 26, a girl also named Mabinty, who was ranked low because of her habit of wetting the bed and her left-handedness. The two looked out for each other and comforted one another while everyone else looked down on them.
One day, DePrince discovered an old magazine that had been blown by the wind against the orphanage gate. On the cover was a white ballerina in a pink tutu standing on pointe. The magazine was titled “Dance Magazine,” and DePrince had never seen anything like it.
“It was not just the fact that she’s a ballerina. It’s that she looks happy. And I wanted to be happy,” DePrince says, looking back. “If what she was doing made her happy, that’s what I wanted to do … So I took the cover off and I put it in my underwear, because that was the only … safe space.”
DePrince showed her favorite teacher the magazine, and her teacher informed her that the dance was called ballet. Unfortunately, the little girl was to encounter a horrific experience before she’d have time to dream further of dance.
Outside of the orphanage, a group of rebels attacked her favorite teacher. DePrince ran out to try and help and a rebel boy turned on her as well, slicing her stomach with a machete. She was spared only because an orphanage watchman begged for her life.
“When I got stabbed, I was really hoping — I felt very much alone,” DePrince recounts tearfully. “I really wanted to die. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t think I would have anything good in my life at all. I think it’s really sad that a child at three years old already wants to die … I mean, the ballerina on the front of the magazine gave me hope, but it didn’t mean that it’d be a reality at all.”
Shortly after this attack, DePrince learned that her friend, Mabinty (number 26), was getting adopted by Americans. A world away in New Jersey, Elaine and Charles DePrince had just lost their three adopted boys to AIDS. One of Elaine’s sons, who had passed away, had previously urged her to adopt from war-torn Africa.
“And then I got a call from the adoption agency,” Elaine DePrince said to NBC News. They asked her, “Which Mabinty are you adopting? We have two of them.”
“Elaine was told that twelve families had refused to take the other Mabinty — number 27 — because of her vitiligo. Elaine’s answer was immediate,” NBC reports. “I said, ‘We’ll take her.’ I said ‘I really don’t have a problem with spots, after dealing with AIDS.’”
When Elaine arrived in Africa to adopt both 4-year-olds, she told number 27, “I’m your new mama.”
The two girls were renamed after Elaine’s late son Michael. Number 26 became Mia Mabinty DePrince, and number 27 became Michaela Mabinty DePrince.
Michaela immediately showed her mother the dance magazine, stating that she wanted to be a ballerina, and Elaine signed both girls up for ballet lessons. Michaela persevered in her ballet classes, working to get comfortable with her vitiligo on stage while facing criticism from teachers because of the color of her skin.
“When I was eight years old, this teacher said, ‘You know, we don’t put a lot of effort into the black ballerinas because they all end up getting fat and having big boobs,’” DePrince recalls.
Despite this, Michaela kept working, and it paid off.
“By 17, Michaela DePrince was performing with the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City. She was the youngest in the company. The following year, she was hired by the prestigious Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Ballet director Ted Brandsen not only hired Michaela but recently promoted her to soloist. He says Michaela’s biggest strength is her ‘will to succeed.’”
At age 22, NBC News reports that “she’s only one level below the top-ranked ballerinas in the company. And last year, she had her brush with superstardom. Beyonce hand-picked Michaela to choreograph her own dance solo in the ‘Freedom’ music video from ‘Lemonade.’”
Elaine DePrince said to NBC News that she would like Michaela’s birth mother to see how far she’s come in this world. “She saw her child as looked down upon … This child has risen from that.”
“It’s not a fairy tale, you know. You have to work hard,” Michaela DePrince says. “There is a lot of loss, a lot of pain. But you know, performing? I love it.”
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