“There Are Particularly No Black Dancers In Ballet, So I have To Speak Up”
ichaela DePrince was born in Sierra Leone in 1995 during its civil war. When she was just 3 years old she lost both her parents and was sent to an cruel orphanage where she was mistreated by staff because they believed she was the “devil’s child” due to her pigmented skin (caused by vitiligo). She and her best friend were adopted by an American couple when they turned four. That orphanage must be beating themselves up right now because in 2011 DePrince starred in the ballet documentary First Position, and she is now a professional ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet. Her latest achievement was publishing her own memoir. The Guardian took the time to interview her:
You co-wrote your memoir with your mother [Elaine DePrince], who kept notes of all the traumatic memories you told her of Sierra Leone when you were growing up. How did you find reliving those experiences?
The first time I ever talked about my story, it was very difficult to recover… I’m so happy my mum was involved – she was smart to write it all down when I was little. If I’d had to relive everything for the book it would have been a lot harder.
Why did you write your memoir?
It was a therapeutic outlet and a way for me to reach out to other people. When I went to South Africa [to perform with the South African Ballet Theatre], I shared my story with a few high-school kids and realised it could really have an impact. It inspired me to think differently about myself – I always wanted to be a role model and to let people know that it’s OK to dream and to live for something.
You must be thrilled with the response the book has had.
I’ve had adults emailing me, kids emailing me… It means so much that my book helped them in some way. Laverne Cox, the actress in Orange Is the New Black, tweeted me saying how inspirational I was to her. Of course, you have to act really casual, even though I was thinking ‘Oh my God I love you so much!’ She’s a transgender person, and some people don’t support that, so she’s the inspiration – I feel like I haven’t really done anything.
Are you a fan of Orange Is the New Black?
I love that show. I love TV and movies – anything that can help me stop thinking about dancing for a bit, because it can really take over your mind. It’s mentally and physically exhausting.
You moved to Amsterdam in 2013 to join the Dutch National Ballet. I read that you’re learning Dutch…
Kind of – it’s very hard. I can count to 10, I know the alphabet, how to say hello and order coffee, and that’s about it. Right now I’m focusing more on dancing.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now we’re working on Jewels. After that we’re going to be doing Swan Lake, Back to Bach, Cinderella, and travelling to St Petersburg, London, Hong Kong, and touring Holland – it’s a busy year. They’re giving me amazing opportunities here.
What is the main difference between living in Europe and the US?
Europe is great, especially for dance. It’s a lot more accepting than the US – there I struggled with the fact that I was black and there weren’t a lot of black dancers at the studio with me. Although in the US, at least I could look up to [other black ballerinas] Misty Copeland or Lauren Anderson.
Is there any sign of the racial bias in ballet changing?
I’m hoping it is, but I don’t see it happening. There’s a dancer [Precious Adams] who was at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow – they told her to bleach her skin. She’s now doing very well at the English National Ballet, but often you look around, and there are no black dancers. Classical ballet is beautiful, but it’s very old.
What, in your opinion, needs to be done to change that?
When I was a child, I overheard one of my directors saying ‘we don’t put a lot of effort into the black girls, because they end up getting fat’. I want people [in ballet] to realise that not everybody is the same – you don’t know how our bodies are going to turn out.
Do you ever get bored answering questions about being a black ballerina?
No. There are practically no black people in ballet, so I need to speak out.
In your memoir, you and your sister Mia [DePrince’s best friend from the orphanage] talk about not feeling ready to return to Sierra Leone. Do you still feel like that?
There are little scars still, and those need to heal before I can go, so that I don’t have to worry that when I go back to the US or to Amsterdam I’ll have nightmares. You have to make sure that you’re 100% ready to deal with something that you’ve always been terrified of.
You wrote in the book ‘when I’m older I’d like to start a free arts school in Sierra Leone, and teach ballet there’.
That would be amazing – I’d like to use the money we earn from this book to open the school. It’ll have to be when I retire from dancing. The arts can change you as a person. Dancing helped me share my emotions and connect to my family, it helped me feel like I was special and not the “devil’s child”. Those kids won’t have the same opportunities I had, and I don’t think they deserve that.
Your parents have had 11 children, nine of whom they adopted. Would you ever consider adoption?
I’d love kids of my own, but if that’s not possible I’d definitely adopt. The fact that it’s becoming so hard to adopt kids from all over the world is so sad. I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t been adopted. I met Angelina Jolie at Women in the World in 2013; she’s adopted so many kids and I think that’s wonderful – it’s horrible that people were so negative about it.
You’ve become a poster girl for many things: international adoption, black women in classical ballet, the American dream… Is that a lot of responsibility?
It is. Sometimes I think, what happens if I never become the dancer I’ve always wanted to be, and people are disappointed? But at the same time I like being a role model, and when I see that I’ve inspired young people to dance, especially young black dancers, that’s amazing for me.