Pink tutus and pointe shoes.
Walls of mirrors and hours of practice.
The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
These are the images that come to mind whenever we think of little girls and their ballerina dreams.
A world away and a world apart from Mabinty Bangura.
Born in Sierra Leone during the Civil War, Mabinty was orphaned at three years of age after her father was shot by rebels and her mother starved to death. Suffering from vitiligo, a skin condition that produced white freckles on her neck and chest, she was called a “devil’s child” by the other girls and women at the orphanage. Known as Number 27, Mabinty ranked at the very bottom of the orphanage’s ranking system. Her only companion was Mia, Number 26, who was shunned for being left-handed.
On a windy day, a magazine swept up against a fence in the orphanage yard. Fascinated by the beautiful young girl on the cover, Mabinty quickly tore it off and hid it under her clothes. Later she explained: “She was in this beautiful tutu and she was on pointe. And she looked so happy to me at the time, and it was perfect timing because I was going through so much and she gave me hope to keep going.”
When a couple from New Jersey arrived to adopt Mia, they decided to also adopt her defiant friend. Away from Sierra Leone, Mabinty realized she was finally in a safe place. She took out the magazine photo and showed it her new mother, who enrolled her in dance school.
Following the dream wasn’t always easy.
After preparing to play Marie in The Nutcracker, she was told that someone else would get the part because the world was not ready for a black Marie. Another instructor commented that she did not have the classic ballet body. At five feet four and a half inches, she was considered too short and her feet did not have that coveted classical line. And the pink and white standard colors for ballet wear clashed with her ebony complexion.
Undaunted, Mabinty (now known as Michaela DePrince) pressed on and worked hard to give her feet a classical line. Her mother hand-dyed her costume straps and pointe shoes a deep brown. At one point, Michaela did consider quitting ballet, but changed her mind after seeing black dancer Heidi Cruz perform with the Pennsylvania Ballet.
In 2012, eighteen-year-old Michaela De Prince became the youngest member of the acclaimed Dance Theater of Harlem. At eighteen, she joined the Dutch National Junior Company as a second-year member and apprentice to the main company. Three years later, Michaela was promoted to the rank of Grand Sujet for The Dutch National Ballet’s main company.
In 2013 Michaela collaborated with her mother to write her memoir, Taking Flight. The mother-daughter team has also worked together on Hope in a Ballet Shoe and Ballerina Dreams, a Step-into-Reading book for young readers between the ages of six and eight years old.
This amazing young woman, who radiates poise and quiet confidence, hopes to inspire other girls to purse ballet. In a recent interview, she said: “I take what’s in my past and put it in my body. My life is proof that no matter what situation you’re in, as long as you have a supportive family, you can achieve anything.”