From Refugee to Rising Ballet Star

Michaela DePrince appearing in Black Swan with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by Rachel Neville.

Michaela DePrince appearing in Black Swan with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by Rachel Neville.

To start out life on the war-torn streets of Sierra Leone and end up a rising star of the ballet world seems an impossible feat, but 19-year-old Michaela DePrince, currently a member of the Dutch National Ballet’s junior company, has been proving the impossible possible her entire life. Now, she and her mother, Elaine DePrince, have co-authored a new book to share her inspiring story with young readers.

Orphaned at age 3 during the midst of Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, Michaela was called the “devil’s child” by orphanage workers and ostracized for her skin condition, vitiligo, which leaves unpigmented spots covering her chest and neck. It was at the orphanage, as Michaela describes below, that she first discovered her life’s passion:

“I found the magazine lying on the ground outside the gate of the orphanage, I’d never seen anything like that before, so I took the cover off and put it in my underwear because I had nowhere else to put it… I kept the picture with me every day until I got adopted. It kept me going and believing and looking forward to something, because I was going through so much at the time. I thought I was just worth nothing and nothing’s going to happen. This person in the photograph symbolized hope for me.”

Soon after she was adopted by an American family who encouraged her blossoming talent in dance. At age six, the determined Mighty Girl won a scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of the American Ballet Theatre after competing against 5,000 other dancers in the prestigious Youth American Grand Prix. She was also one of the six dancers profiled in the 2011 documentary “First Position.” In 2012, at 17, she became the youngest dancer at Dance Theatre of Harlem, and, last year, she took a position with the Amsterdam-based ballet.

Michaela is well on her way to achieving her greatest dream — becoming the principal ballerina in a dance company. And, after her dance career ends, she hopes to share the gift of dance with others by opening a dance school in Sierra Leone. Wherever she ends up, we know this incredible young woman will continue to show the power of determination, hard work, and hope when given the opportunity to shine!

Her new book is available in two versions — a memoir for ages 11 and up, “Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina” (, and an easy chapter book for ages 6 to 9, “Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer” (

There is also a wonderful 3-minute video about her story on YouTube at — and you can stream the documentary, “First Position,” in which Michaela is profiled at

DanceTabs also ran an excellent in-depth interview with Michaela last year at

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