Visible Women

The incredible true story of ballerina Michaela DePrince

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Moya Crockett
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Madonna is set to make a film about the dancer’s journey from war orphan to star ballerina. 

It was announced on Wednesday that Madonna is set to direct a film based on the life of Michaela DePrince, a world-famous ballerina who grew up orphaned in Sierra Leone during the country’s bloody civil war.

Taking Flight will feature a script by British TV writer Camilla Blackett, adapted from DePrince’s 2014 memoir of the same name.

Writing on Twitter, Blackett said: “Hi. So. Erm. I’m making a movie with Madonna about one of the greatest ballerinas on the planet. Cool bye.”

Madonna said in a statement that DePrince’s “journey resonated with me deeply as both an artist and an activist who understands adversity”.

“We have a unique opportunity to shed light on Sierra Leone and let Michaela be the voice for all the orphaned children she grew up beside,” she continued. “I am honoured to bring her story to life.”

No release date has yet been set for the film adaptation of Taking Flight – so in the meantime, let’s take a look at why DePrince’s story is so incredible. 

DePrince was born Mabinty Bangura in south-western Sierra Leone in January 1995, when the country’s devastating civil war had been raging for almost five years. She was born with vitiligo, a skin condition that affects pigmentation – in her case, mainly causing white patches across her chest and shoulders. Vitiligo was considered a sign of the devil in Sierra Leone and the young DePrince was shunned by people in her community, who blamed her for everything from crop failures to an Ebola epidemic.

Her parents defended her, but they knew their daughter’s life chances would be affected by her vitiligo. At a TedX talk in Amsterdam in 2014, DePrince explained that her parents believed no Sierra Leonean man would marry her when she grew up, and taught her to read so she could have a future. “They wanted me to grow up to be something other than a beggar on the streets,” she said.

However, when DePrince was three, disaster struck. Her father was shot and killed by rebels, and her mother died of fever and starvation soon after. She was initially taken in by her uncle, but he “couldn’t see the point of wasting his money feeding” a girl child who “would never bring him a bride’s price”, and took her to an orphanage.

The orphanage was far from a safe haven. The women who ran it were appalled by DePrince’s vitiligo, calling her “the devil’s child”, and numbered each child at the orphanage from one to 27 – from their favourite to least favourite. DePrince was number 27, and routinely received the smallest portions of food and the most ragged clothing. In a 2014 interview, she said: “Whenever someone is cruel to me or treats me unfairly I feel like number 27 [again].”

There was one bright spot in her time at the orphanage: another girl, also named Mabinty. The second Mabinty had been given the number 26, and the two girls became fast friends. Around this time, DePrince says she came across an old glossy magazine blowing on the wind.

“On the cover was a picture of a beautiful ballerina en pointe,” she said. “I didn’t know what she was doing in the photo, but she looked so happy and content, that all I knew was that I had to be this person. Just maybe if I did what she did I would and could be happy one day too.” With nowhere else to keep the magazine, she tore off the cover and hid it in her underwear.

When DePrince was four, the horrors of the civil war began to move closer and closer to her everyday life. First, she witnessed a pregnant teacher being butchered by rebels; next, the orphanage was bombed, and the children were forced to flee to a UN refugee camp in New Guinea. The two Mabintys were then taken to Ghana, where they were greeted by an American couple, Elaine and Charles DePrince – their new adoptive parents.

The DePrinces gave the girls the names of Michaela and Mia, and took them back to the New Jersey town of Cherry Hill. DePrince told Elaine about her dreams of being a dancer, and she was promptly enrolled in ballet classes. At the age of five she began attending the prestigious Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, where she would study for a decade; at 15, she won a full scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre in New York City.

Two years later, DePrince debuted professionally as a guest principal dancer at the South African Ballet Theatre. “When I went to South Africa, I shared my story with a few high school kids and realised it could really have an impact,” she told The Guardian. “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.”

Michaela DePrince photographed in Johannesburg in 2012

In 2013, aged 18, DePrince joined the Dutch National Ballet (DNB). She was the only dancer of African origin among the DNB’s 30 nationalities, yet she has often said that she found European ballet more welcoming to dark-skinned dancers than ballet in North America. When she was studying in the States as a child, she heard a ballet director saying that young black dancers weren’t worth investing in “because they end up getting fat”, and she found it difficult to get cast.

“North American companies tend to shy away from black female dancers who are darker than a brown paper bag,” she told the Clyde Fitch Report. “I couldn’t get into classical companies in the US and Canada. I would make the cuts in auditions and would be one of the last five dancers standing when the audition ended. I’d expect to get an offer, but I never would… I began to think that I was truly a dreadful dancer.”

Of course, she isn’t. At the DNB, she moved swiftly up from the junior to the main company, and in 2016 she appeared in Beyoncé’s video for Lemonade. “She walked up to me and said, ‘It’s such an honour to have you here,’” DePrince said at the time. “I was really cheesy and said, ‘The honour is mine.’ I was on cloud nine.” She is now a soloist with the DNB.

DePrince published her memoir, Taking Flight: From War Orphan To Star Ballerina (written alongside her mother Elaine and given the alternative title Hope in a Ballet Shoe in the UK) in 2014. Film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) bought the rights to turn it into a feature-length film in 2015 – and now the direction is in the hands of Madonna. We can only hope she does DePrince’s story justice.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images