You might not recognize Michaela DePrince by name, but you’ve most likely seen her dance—she was the breakout ballerina in the 2011 documentary First Position, which chronicled the attempts of six dance protégés as they prepared for their discipline’s top competition: the Youth American Grand Prix. (If you’ve never seen it, the film’s definitely worth staying in for a night of Netflix and chilling…with your AC.) Of all the compelling stories it told, however, none could really compare to that of the diminutive dancer’s.
DePrince was born in Sierra Leone during its devastating civil war in the ’90s. By age three, both of her parents had died, and she was sent to live in an orphanage. Ultimately, she wound up fleeing the West African country with her caregivers to escape the fighting. An American couple, Elaine and Charles DePrince, adopted her at four-years-old, and she moved to their home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
“It was very difficult for me to let people in as a child, which knocked my growth as an artist.”
The traumas of her childhood—including being ostracized at the orphanage because she has vitiligo, an autoimmune disease that causes her skin to lose pigmentation due to melanocytes (which are the cells the cause coloration) being destroyed—lingered long after the dancer immigrated to the US. (For a fuller understanding, you should hear DePrince’s personal reflections in the video below.)
“It was very difficult for me to let people in as a child, which knocked my growth as an artist,” says the 21-year-old dancer, who’s now a soloist for the Dutch National Ballet. “I was always scared people would be able to see something negative if I opened up too much. [But] I want to be more open—I realized that’s the only way to become the artist I want to be.”
And in some ways, she says, the adversity she experienced at an early age helped prepare her for the rigor of her chosen profession.
“It’s a difficult art that I chose,” explains the performer. “It can bring you down quite often, but when I am onstage, and I am performing, and I can feel every single movement, it’s incredible—that’s what brings me joy. It gives me a way to express myself when I don’t know how to put things into words.”
That positive outlook is part of DePrince’s personal ethos: “I try to focus on the good.” Right now, she’s reading The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual guide to self-actualization. And her high-vibe attitude is clearly resonating with people—she’s the new face of Jockey’s “Show ‘Em What’s Underneath” campaign, her memoir, Taking Flight, has been published in 12 countries, and she garnered a solo in Beyoncé’s Freedom video off her visual album “Lemonade” (all before she was old enough to order her first healthy cocktail at a bar).
Along with a lot of love and support, these career milestones helped her heal from the emotional hardships of her past—she credits them with boosting her confidence. (Or as Beyoncé would say: She’s learned to twirl on her haters.)
“It’s not worth it to waste your time on people who think negative thoughts about you.”
“It’s not worth it to waste your time on people who think negative thoughts about you,” says the ballerina.”I am who I am, I’m doing what I love, and I get that chance by also talking about my story.”
Today, she says her focus is on paying those good vibes forward to others—not just onstage, but off. She’s an ambassador for War Child Holland, a non-governmental organization that helps children in conflict areas, like Lebanon and Uganda. “I’m hoping I’ll be able to go into the field soon and bring my art there,” she says.“I love helping people, that really does make me happy.”
Until then, she’s living in Amsterdam, where her dance company’s based, and doing what the Dutch do best: biking—thankfully, in sneakers. It’s hard to pedal in pointe shoes.