Her father was murdered by gunmen, her mother starved to death and Michaela DePrince was branded a “devil child” at her orphanage because of a rare skin condition. Then, as civil war raged around her in Sierra Leone, a vision came as if from another world.
Outside the orphanage gates was a magazine with a picture of a ballet dancer. “I’d never seen anything like it before,” Michaela, now 17, tells the Guardian.
"It was kind of strange because she looked so beautiful and so happy, and so I ripped the cover off and I tucked it into my underwear. I kept looking at it every single night and just dreaming that if I came to America I want to look exactly like this person."
Her dream was realised. Mabinty Bangura, as she was then, was adopted by an American couple and given a new name and new life in the US. She is now a rising star in the ballet world and makes her full professional debut next week in Le Corsaire at the Joburg Theatre in South Africa.
When she was around 8 and rehearsing for The Nutcracker, just a few days before the performance she was told, “I’m sorry, you can’t do it. America’s not ready for a black girl ballerina.”
For Michaela, “to say this to an 8-year-old is just devastating. It was terrible.”
When she was 9, a teacher told her mother: “I don’t like to put money into black dancers because they grow up and end up having big boobs and big hips.”
The dancer looked down at her petite figure and protested, “I don’t have boobs. I don’t get it.”
Instead of getting her down, “It makes me more determined,” she said. “Because I’ve been through so much, I know now that I can make it and I can help other kids who have been in really bad situations realize that they can make it too.”