The road to becoming a dancer, particularly for a girl, is a long, hard, highly competitive one. She must practice thousands of pliés and tendus, and deal with sore muscles, strict diets, painful pointe shoes, blisters, bunions - and all the other dancers waiting in the wings.
For 14-year-old Michaela DePrince, the road has been even rougher, carrying her from an African orphanage to a new life in Cherry Hill. But she already has begun to be noticed. In January, she won the Youth Grand Prix in the junior age division at the Philadelphia regional semifinal of the Youth America Grand Prix, the world's largest competition for student dancers. She was among a small, elite group to make the final round in the New York finals in March.
She also was one of a handful of young dancers named to the American Ballet Theatre's National Training Program, meaning she participated in ABT's Summer Intensive last year, was given scholarship money to study at Philadelphia's Rock School for Dance Education during the year, and will return to study at ABT this summer.
Michaela's route toward a life in dance began in the coastal West African country of Sierra Leone, which has a long history of poverty and violence. She was born Mabinty Bangura in the midst of a vicious 11-year civil war. Her parents died soon after, leaving her to an orphanage where the "aunties" gave her last choice of food and clothing - possibly because she has vitiligo, a pigmentation condition that left white patches on her upper chest. She had just one friend, another girl named Mabinty.
One day, when she was 41/2 years old, she found a magazine that had blown against the orphanage gate. In it was a photo of a ballerina. Enchanted, she carefully tore it out and hid it, treasured it. Some day, she thought, she would dance like that woman.
Meanwhile, in Cherry Hill, Elaine and Charles DePrince were knocking around their near-empty nest. Their biological sons, Adam and Eric, were grown and gone. Of their adopted sons - Teddy, Michael, and Cubby, all hemophiliacs with HIV contracted from blood products - two had died and the third was very ill.
What the DePrinces needed, they decided, was a 4-year-old to brighten their lives.
"My son Michael, who died at 15, that was his big dream," Elaine DePrince says in a phone interview, "to adopt a child from a war-torn country in Africa, mostly because he was in love with Sally Struthers," TV spokeswoman for the Christian Children's Fund.
The DePrinces decided to honor his memory by fulfilling that dream, and when they saw a photo of a smiling girl named Mabinty at a Sierra Leone orphanage, they acted to adopt her.
But the orphanage had two Mabintys - which did they want? The DePrinces decided to take both, renaming the girl in the photo Mia and her best friend Michaela, after the brother who inspired the adoption. Both kept Mabinty as a middle name.
Two years later, a third Sierra Leone girl, Isatu, joined the family and wanted an M name, too. She is now Mariel. All three are 14 and "very close," Michaela says. "We could be like triplets."
On her toes
From the start, Michaela knew what she wanted.
"When I brought the children back to the hotel room," Elaine DePrince says of that first day in Sierra Leone, "I had brought a suitcase of clothes with me and some little toys, little dolls with changes of clothes.
"Mia, all she wanted to do was play with the toys. But Michaela was not content. She searched through all the luggage to find what she was looking for, but she couldn't find it. So she stood on her little naked toes and put her arms above her head."
Michaela already spoke Mende, Limba, Temne, Krio, and Arabic, but she had to learn English. When she did, she said she had thought all women in America wore pointe shoes. "She looked to see if she had gotten a mother with pink satin pointe shoes," Elaine DePrince says, laughing. "But she didn't."
She also showed her mother her prized ballerina picture, and within months she was signed up for ballet classes. All the DePrince girls - including Amie, a Liberian girl who joined the family as a teen in 2003 - studied at the Rock School, but only Michaela was devoted.
Ballet "is a great way to express your feelings," she says between rehearsals at the Rock. She is wearing a bright pink leotard and a black ballet skirt, her bare legs in pink pointe shoes. Of the five pairs of pointe shoes she keeps in her dance bag, three are pink and two are spray-painted brown to match her skin. She never wears tights unless required, and she doesn't pad or tape her toes in any way to protect them from the shoes.
She has big goals. "I want to go to ABT. I want to be a prima ballerina. I know it's a big expectation, but I really want this dream, and I want to make a difference to other people. And once I end that career, I want to be a choreographer and work for other companies and stuff." She choreographed her own contemporary variation for the 2008 Youth America Grand Prix.
Lots of teenage dancers have lofty goals. But Michaela's teachers think it's more than that - that perhaps it has something to do with her early life in Sierra Leone.
"I think certainly there is ambition and drive there, maybe more than a kid that's been living in the burbs in a large McMansion," says Bojan Spassoff, codirector of the Rock School.
Her difficult early history "doesn't show with a negativity or a suffering," adds his wife, codirector Stephanie Wolf Spassoff. "Somehow, it transformed into a positive drive and energy."
Michaela dreams of opening a ballet school, possibly in Sierra Leone. "I think I would feel like I would want to go back where I was born so other kids can have this opportunity, too. It wouldn't be a big school, but just so they can have an opportunity."
'She just flies'
Meanwhile, what makes her dancing special is clear to her teachers. "I think the obvious thing is that she has an unusual and enormous jump," says Bojan Spassoff. "So certainly the athletic side of it is easily visible and easily appreciated by everybody."
"I think it's her dynamic athleticism," Stephanie Wolf Spassoff adds. "She just flies. She attacks things with such enormous vigor and enthusiasm, which is a wonderful thing and makes her so interesting for the audience to look at. She grabs your attention."
Three years ago, Michaela ran into a roadblock when the family moved to Vermont. It was a welcome change of pace for her parents, who looked around their Cherry Hill neighborhood and thought of the sons they lost.
"My husband and I lived in Vermont when we were newlyweds," Elaine DePrince says. "The people were very nice to us. Little did we know it would have nothing for Michaela," who tried several teachers and studios but never found a suitable training center.
So last fall she left home again to return to the Rock School, where she lives in the dorms. Her father, Charles, commutes part time to Burlington Township, where he is president of Fuji Health Science, a Japanese pharmaceutical company, so she still has a parent who can take her shopping or to dinner. That helps, but "sometimes I call my sister crying because I miss her so much."
Ultimately, though, she says, it's worth the sacrifice. And so do her teachers.
"There is a maturity way beyond her years in the way she works," Stephanie Wolf Spassoff says. "There are few kids who really are prodigies who you can see are older than their years. Perhaps that's what she's gotten out of that experience."
"I think the passion and the love she has is so evident," Bojan Spassoff says. "The promise she has is so great."