JOHANNESBURG — Michaela DePrince was little more than a toddler when she saw her first ballerina – an image in a magazine page blown against the gate of the orphanage where she ended up during Sierra Leone's civil war. It showed an American ballet dancer posed on tip toe.
"All I remember is she looked really, really happy," Michaela told The Associated Press this week. She wished "to become this exact person."
From the misery of the orphanage "I saw hope in it. And I ripped the page out and I stuck it in my underwear because I didn't have any place to put it."
Now Michaela's the one inspiring young Africans: She escaped war and suffers a skin pigmentation disorder that had her labeled "the devil's child" at the orphanage. She's an African dancer in the world of ballet that sees few leading black females. She was adopted and raised to become a ballerina in the U.S. – a country where she believed everyone walked around on tippy toes.
On July 19, Michaela performs in her first professional full ballet, dancing the part of Gulnare in Le Corsaire, as a guest artist of South Africa's two biggest dance companies, Mzansi Productions and South African Ballet Theatre.
Her ascent to stardom in the ballet world has been fast, if not typical. At 17, she's already been featured in a documentary film and has performed on TV-show "Dancing With the Stars". She just graduated from high school and the American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and will go on to work at Dance Theatre of Harlem. Her family recently moved from Vermont to New York City to support her dance career and her sister's acting and singing. Michaela said she has been offered many opportunities to dance with companies in Europe and in the U.S.
Her big brown eyes are framed by mascara-coated lashes to cover their whiteness stemming from the vitiligo skin disorder. Tiny wisps of white curls peek through the dark brown hair pinned into a bun. Her wide infectious grin turned strained as she chatted about her childhood.
"I lost both my parents, so I was there (the orphanage) for about a year and I wasn't treated very well because I had vitiligo," she said Monday. "We were ranked as numbers and number 27 was the least favorite and that was my number, so I got the least amount of food, the least amount of clothes and what not."
Michaela said she walked shoeless for miles to reach a refugee camp after word came that the orphanage would be bombed. Elaine DePrince, who adopted Michaela and two other girls, Mia and Mariel, from the orphanage, said she met the girls in Ghana in 1999. Michaela was 4.
"They came to me sick and traumatized by the war," DePrince said. "Michaela arrived with the worst case of tonsillitis, fever, mononucleosis and joints that were swollen.
Michaela said the war and her time in the orphanage affected her for years.
"It took a long time to get it out of my memory. But my mom helped me a lot and I wrote a lot of stuff down so I could recover from it," she said. "Dance helped me a lot. I had a lot of nightmares. "
Michaela, Mia and Mariel were among children whose adoptions became controversial in Sierra Leone.
In 2010, some parents of 29 children left at the Help A Needy Child International center, known as HANCI, stormed the office of Sierra Leone's social welfare minister demanding help finding their sons and daughters. They claimed many did not know their children would be adopted.
HANCI maintains the parents consented and said it arranged the adoptions through a U.S. agency that placed 29 of the children with American parents. DePrince confirmed three of her daughters were adopted through the U.S. agency.
In April, Sierra Leone police opened an investigation into the adoptions.
The adoptions took place as the West African country suffered a decade-long war that ended in 2002. Rebels burned villages, raped women and turned kidnapped children into drugged teenage fighters. Tens of thousands of civilians died. Countless others were mutilated by rebels who hacked off hands, arms or legs with machetes.
Michaela said her father, a trader, was shot dead by rebels and her mother starved to death. It is unclear if she has family left in Sierra Leone. While Mia told her mother that many parents visited their children at the orphanage, Michaela didn't get visitors.
"I would like to say that, if she has any relatives alive in Sierra Leone they should know that she has been extremely well cared for and loved, and we have put our hearts and souls into making her dreams come true," DePrince said.
DePrince and her husband Charles have adopted nine children, and had two biological sons. Two of Michaela's brothers died before she was born, and a third died when she was young. Their deaths were a result of HIV contracted from a manufactured plasma product that was used to treat the hemorrhages associated with hemophilia.
DePrince said the family has worked hard to develop all their children's dreams.
"She says she would have not had this dream come true if she had not become Michaela DePrince" by adoption, DePrince said, adding that none of the three girls adopted from Sierra Leone have expressed interest in finding their biological family.
But Michaela said she does eventually want to return to her birthplace to open a school for dance and the arts.
"I hope to inspire a lot of young children," Michaela said, "no matter what people tell you, you should focus on your goals and you should do what you want to do, especially if you want to be a ballet dancer."
Michaela counts many African American ballet dancers among her role models: "They all have conquered something in the dance world because they were black and they've slowly broken down barriers."
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."
Her story, her technique, her focus, is set to inspire other young black and African girls who face hardship to pursue their dreams.
Michaela's presence "shakes and rattles the whole idea that ballet is not for black people and shows it's for all people," said Dirk Badenhorst, CEO-designate of South Africa Mzansi Ballet. "Brilliance is colorblind and it really is proved by Michaela."