On Her Toes…
From War Orphan to Star Ballerina
Michaela and Elaine DePrince, Ember (Paperback)
Before she was five Michaela DePrince had survived a civil war in Sierra Leone that led to the deaths of her biological parents (her father was murdered by rebel soldiers, her mother starved to death soon after); life as a refugee; life in a dysfunctional orphanage; being a witness to the brutal butchery by rebel troops of the pregnant teacher who had awakened her intellectual curiosity; and a flight from marauding armies. She was then adopted by extraordinary, loving and understanding Americans (Elaine and Charles DePrince) who took her and her best friend, Mia, to New Jersey together and changed their lives. Michaela DePrince (who has just turned 21) was only 19 when she wrote this memoir with the help of her mother. She wondered if it was premature to undertake the task, but the story she has to tell is of wide interest. The book is now being released in paperback; it’s worth serious attention and I hope it will find, in this new format, the very large audience it deserves.
Michaela describes how she had to adjust to a whole new world and was brought up in some affluence and comfort when she arrived in the USA. But also, as she grew older, was a target of the bigotry that can exist not only in white American society but also in the world of dance to which she aspired. She writes so simply and directly that the impact of her experiences is all the stronger.
There’s much that one can say about this touching book, particularly that it seems easy to read, and persistently awakens and addresses very difficult questions about the state of the world in which we all live. Michaela’s reflections on Sierra Leone, America and beyond are haunting for many reasons—not least the almost magical yet real aspect of her wishing to become a ballerina as a very young child. This obsession or dream developed from the time the wind blew an old ballet magazine to her during a storm in Sierra Leone when she was about four; she became entranced by the image of the ballerina en pointe on the cover. Fate? Serendipity?
Her memoir raises the question of inborn talent and capacity versus opportunity and the nurturing of talent. This little girl has now achieved the hard-earned recognition that promises entry to a fine career, but has also benefited from the sheer luck of the draw. First she had to survive; and then she had to be found by caring, concerned people who could take her to a place where her talent could be understood, appreciated and encouraged. How much talent of all sorts is being wasted all over the world today by war, desolation and famine and the absence of cultural opportunities?
Michaela, was born Mabinty Bangura, but as Michaela DePrince became one of the subjects of the excellent documentary about the training of young children in dance, First Position (http://www.balletdocumentary.com/official-trailer/) . She has gone on to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and is, at this time, with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Refused a child’s part in The Nutcracker when she was eight years old because (in the opinion of a casting director), America was not ready for a black girl ballerina yet, and also one suffering from the vitiligo that disfigured her skin for years. Michaela’s is an inspirational story in print and on film. It also gives us some unusual and important insights into the world of pain, discipline and devotion behind those dream performances of ballet.
Finally, because of its straightforward approach and clear prose style, this book is an ideal gift for young people and, like the Diary of Anne Frank, a moving and emblematic tale. In America the book is called Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina. In the UK, it’s Hope in a Ballet Shoe. With either title, its author has done us all a service by sharing her story.