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Dancer Michaela DePrince is a star of the ballet stage, screen, and ‘DWTS’

So far, 2012 is being very, very good to Michaela DePrince. The 17-year-old dancer — born in Sierra Leone and raised in Cherry Hill — appears in the April issue of Marie Claire and will be the subject of a spread in a forthcoming Teen Vogue.

So far, 2012 is being very, very good to Michaela DePrince.

The 17-year-old dancer — born in Sierra Leone and raised in Cherry Hill — appears in the April issue of Marie Claire and will be the subject of a spread in a forthcoming Teen Vogue.

She's a major part of the award-winning documentary First Position, about talented young ballet dancers competing at the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix, that opens nationwide on May 11.

And on Tuesday night, she'll appear on ABC's Dancing With the Stars, performing a pas de deux with Adé Chiké Torbert — who came in fourth in the seventh season of So You Think You Can Dance — as British pop star Natasha Bedingfield sings "Wild Horses."

Michaela, who was profiled by The Inquirer in 2009 as a 14-year-old phenom at Philadelphia's Rock School for Dance Education, was recognized on the streets of New York City three times on a recent day.

"It's crazy!" she said Wednesday in a phone interview. "All of a sudden it happened overnight."

When she and her mother flew to Los Angeles earlier this month to tape the DWTS segment, "I was surprised by the crowd," she said — "the crowd really likes everything!"

Her mother knows why. "She's a crowd-pleaser," said Elaine DePrince — who with her husband, Charles, adopted the orphaned Michaela when she was 4. "The crowds love her."

"I can't sleep!!! AHH!," Michaela tweeted excitedly the night before taping the piece, which was choreographed by American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress Susan Jaffe.

This week she acknowledged that "it was also a little stressful, because I had to dance on a ballroom floor. I had to get rubber put on the pointe shoes. I've never rehearsed on that kind of floor" — glossy rather than a non-slip ballet floor. "I never wore those kind of shoes." But after one day of rehearsal, she was good to go.

Much of her recent recognition is due to First Position, which has won awards at film festivals in Toronto, New York, and San Francisco. But neither fame nor film would have happened if it weren't for her dancing, and her story.

Dance chops? She has the gigs to prove them. Last weekend, at a gala, she danced a pas de deux with New York City Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar. Next month, she'll dance a pas de trois at Daniel Ulbricht's benefit Dance Against Cancer. Ulbricht is also a City Ballet principal, and Michaela will dance the role inspired by his mother's struggle with the disease. She's in her final year at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School — known as JKO — at American Ballet Theatre, and also studies and performs with the ABT Studio Company, the second troupe for young dancers.

Then there's the story.

After growing up in Cherry Hill, she now lives in Manhattan with her parents, her 12-year-old nieces Jestina and Bernice, and her sisters Mia and Mariel, also adopted from Sierra Leone. Elaine DePrince is writing a book about the three girls, who are very close, all 17, and, in Michaela's words, "could be like triplets."

It's a very different life than she could have imagined when she was 4½-year-old Mabinty Bangura, living in an orphanage in violent, impoverished Sierra Leone. Young Mabinty had only one friend and was anything but a favorite with the "aunties" who ran the orphanage, perhaps because she had vitiligo, a pigmentation condition that left white patches on her upper chest.

One day, she found a magazine that had blown against the orphanage gate. In it was a picture of a ballerina in pointe shoes. She tore it out and kept it, and dreamed of dancing like that one day.

The dream took root when the DePrinces adopted both her and her friend — now named Mia, a talented musician who plays oboe, English horn, and piano, and is studying musical theater; Mariel joined them two years later.

"Not many people can realize a dream," said Franco De Vita, principal of JKO, where Michaela moved after her Rock School years. He also appears in First Position, as a judge for Youth America Grand Prix. "She's a very strong dancer technically, and also her personality is very strong in every way. And she knows what she wants. And I think this is good for the future for her."

In May, she'll be dancing in year-end performances with both JKO and the Studio Company, and will dance with the Studio Company in ABT's opening-night gala at the Metropolitan Opera House. "There is big interest around her," De Vita said.

It's a schedule that has her working 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., though she says she's nowhere near burned out: "Actually, I love working a lot. I just need to make sure I know when to rest and when to say yes and when to say no."

But her future is still up in the air. Auditioning for ballet companies, she faces several roadblocks. Many companies won't hire dancers younger than 18, a bar she won't clear until January 2013. She is just under 5-foot-5, a little short for a dancer, which can make partnering difficult. She has an athletic build, as opposed to the waifs in most corps de ballet.

And then, of course, there's the issue everyone dances around: race. The few black ballet dancers are mostly male (and don't have to appear among dozens of other white swans) or have lighter skin.

Michaela took a company class with Ballet de Monte Carlo when they were in New York recently and "I did eight [pirouette revolutions], which is insane." She's done as many as 12 in class, but she often dances better in auditions and performances than in class because, she says, there are no expectations. "People in auditions don't really know who I am. They don't know what my good day is like, or my bad day."

She's made the final rounds at several auditions, but so far the most promising bite is from Dance Theater of Harlem, which offered her a contract.

"It so depends on what the director at this point needs," JKO principal De Vita said, noting that some dancers who are turned away the first time "come back two or three years later."

"Michaela is such a special dancer. I hope she'll find a choreographer who wants to make dance for her. She's still so young."

Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at

Movie First Position opens May 11 at the Ritz Five, 214 Walnut St. 215-925-7900.