Michaela: I feel like dance is a part of who I am. I can’t see myself doing anything else.
Gary: Ten hours a day, Michaela DePrince points, pirouettes and leaps. Then cools down. A near flawless youth performance on Dancing With the Stars not long ago means she’s one of the most sought after ballerinas in the world.
Michaela also stars in the award-winning documentary First Position, which follows six dancers trying to earn a spot in an elite ballet company. Challenging? Yes. But nothing compared to challenges Michaela’s already overcome.
Michaela was born in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa. She survived a civil war that killed more than fifty thousand people, including her own parents when she was just three years old.
Michaela: I don’t remember much, but it was just terrible. I do remember that I lost a lot of people that I cared about.
Gary: Tragedy tracked her to an orphanage, where her favorite teacher was killed right in front of her.
Michaela has a skin condition called vitiligo, which leaves the skin spotted. She was nicknamed “devil child” by adults who ranked the orphans by who they like the most.
Michaela: They named us by number and I was number 27, which is the least favorite. So I got the least amount of food, the worst clothes. I had really bad malnutrition and I was really sick all the time. I would’ve probably died if my parents didn’t adopt me at that time.
Gary: Her American parents heard about Michaela when they were adopting her sister, Mia.
Elaine DePrince: The agency told me they had a child who was spotted. They couldn’t place her. Twelve families had rejected her. And we decided we would adopt her also.
Gary: Michaela moved to the U.S. when she four years old. And as she grew close to her new family, she began sharing her most personal thoughts.
Elaine: She had had this picture of a ballerina stuffed in her underwear that she had been hiding for a long time.
Michaela: I found this magazine outside the orphanage gate and it was a picture of ballet dancers. And on the cover was a ballet dancer and she just looked so happy. And I was in such a terrible place that I thought if I ever got adopted, maybe I could be just like her.
Gary: So finding that magazine, it was almost like it was meant to be.
Michaela: It was meant to be, and I think that’s what really saved me.
Gary: Her mom signed her up for ballet classes, where it was pretty obvious Michaela was meant to dance. Michaela attended exclusive dance schools including The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia and the American Ballet Theatre in New York. But her challenges weren’t over.
Michaela: I was younger and I was getting ready for The Nutcracker. And I rehearsed everything. Everything was perfect. I was so excited. It was a few weeks before the show. And then they said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t do it anymore because America’s not ready for a black Marie.’ So.
Gary: You almost quit.
Michaela: I almost quit ballet.
Gary: She didn’t quit. And now, at just 17 years old, she’s the principal dancer at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She sees herself as an important role model.
Michaela: These two little black girls come in and their mom tells me how they didn’t know black dancers were in ballet, and that because they saw me in the newspaper, that they decided to enroll into ballet too.
Gary: Do you ever pinch yourself and think about, you know, is this real?
Michaela: Not anymore. When I was younger, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Don’t get attached to anybody. You’re just dreaming, you’re just dreaming.’ So I’ve just accepted how amazing everything is right now, and just enjoy it as much as I can.
Gary: Gary Hamilton, Channel One News.