Growing up in the middle of a civil war in Sierra Leone, Michaela DePrince had a dream of becoming a ballerina. But the road to becoming a professional dancer was a long one, as DePrince faced discrimination both in her home country and in the ballet community for her skin.
DePrince's birth parents died from starvation when she was as a child, and her uncle sent her to an orphanage because of her vitiligo. "There were 27 children in the orphanage and we were numbered. Number 1 got the biggest portion of food and the best choice of clothes. Number 27 got the smallest portion of food and the leftover clothes," says DePrince. "The aunties thought I was unlucky and evil — they called me 'Devil child' because of my vitiligo. I was number 27."
After being adopted, DePrince's parents encouraged her to pursue her dreams of joining the ballet, but she soon found that her talent as a dancer was treated as second to her appearance. "It's hard to be a Black ballerina," DePrince says. "I was worried that my vitiligo would be a problem, but my skin turned out to be an issue in a different way." Instructors and companies turned her away, and she had to hand dye her undergarments and ballet shoes because there were no nude colours available in her skin tone.
Despite the longstanding industry prejudices, DePrince worked her way to becoming a professional dancer with the Dutch National Ballet. "One of my favourite sayings is: 'Don't be afraid to be a poppy in a field of daffodils,'" says DePrince. "And I think we should be spreading out more poppies in our field of daffodils. By that I mean, I just want more diversity in the ballet world — I want more diversity in the arts."
Watch the video above to hear Michaela DePrince's story, one of perseverance and heart, that garnered her a platform to speak out as a role model for young women around the world who also dream of breaking barriers.
This video was filmed for The Female Lead by Marian Lacombe, with photography by Brigitte Lacombe. The Female Lead is a non-profit organisation dedicated to making women’s stories more visible and offering alternative role models to those ever-present in popular culture. Visit The Female Lead website to send a free copy of The Female Lead book and teaching resources to any US or UK school.