Only pages into Michaela and Elaine DePrince’s TAKING FLIGHT we had tears in our eyes and were beyond inspired by Michaela’s life journey from orphan in war-torn Sierra Leone to barrier-breaking ballerina. Her memoir is heartwrenching, memorable and unputdownable. We couldn’t wait to catch up with the DePrinces to learn more about what inspired Michalea and what advice she and her mom have to share with Justine readers about overcoming obstacles…
Michaela, you were orphaned at age four, survived the horrors of a violent civil war, suffered from a skin disorder that had you shunned and labeled “the devil’s child”—yet you broke through racial barriers to become a principal ballerina. In so many stages of your life you could have given up and become a victim, but you didn’t. How did you hold on to hope and push forward?
Michaela: How I survived and didn’t give up and become a victim is probably due in part to nature and in part to nurture. I think that I was born a very stubborn child. This stubbornness made me determined to accomplish everything I set out to do, whether it was breaking a swim record, getting into a top-notch classical company, or even surviving a war. So I think I was born with the ability to hope and cope. Then I was nurtured by two sets of parents who were just as stubborn and determined as I was. They both provided me with the encouragement and the example that I needed to push forward.
Encouragement also came from a picture of a ballet dancer you found when you were in the orphanage in Sierra Leone. Would you share that story, and what that picture represented to you?
Michaela: When I was a little girl, I went down to the orphanage gate, hoping that someone would come visit me for my birthday. A heavy wind from the Sahara was blowing that day and it blew an old magazine down the road and into the gate. I pulled it out and found a picture of a beautiful ballerina on the cover. I was in awe of with her beauty and her apparent happiness, so I told myself that if I was like her, I would be happy, too. So I suppose that the picture represented for me the attainment of happiness.
Your parents here in the States also had to overcome personal tragedy, losing sons to HIV due to tainted blood transfusions. Reading your book made us fall in love with their hearts, their strength and their excellent advice! Tell us a little about them and how they’ve influenced your life.
Michaela: Wow! Telling you how my American family influenced my life is a book unto itself. I’ll try to tell you in a couple hundred words or less how I learned from their example. My American brother Teddy lived life to the fullest, even though he was sick with AIDS and suffered from hemophilia, a bleeding disorder. He did everything he ever dreamed of doing, like skydiving, snowboarding and parasailing. His life was a constant adventure. From him I learned to be brave in the face of adversity.From my dad I learned that a man can be gentle, loving and supportive of his wife’s achievements without being weak. Also, my dad is an exceptionally hard worker, and I think that I learned my work ethic from him. From my mother I learned that a woman can have it all: career, children and a happy marriage. It’s all a matter of timing. On more than one occasion, my mother postponed her career to meet the needs of her kids—she left law school to adopt Mia and me. But now at 67, she is going full steam ahead with her career
Elaine, as Michaela just shared, she’s not the only one in your family to have overcome obstaces; you all have been through so much. Do you have advice to share on how to push forward when faced with tragedy?
Elaine: Actually, I do, and not just because of the loss of my sons. My parents were poor and I had to work my way through college while often helping them with the grocery bills. I was the first person in my large extended family to earn a college degree. My advice is to recognize that you are responsible for your own life. You cannot expect a fairy godmother to step in and wave her magic wand. If you want something in life, whether a career in dance or a university degree, you must work hard to make it happen.
If sorrow strikes, as in the death of a loved one, use that to move yourself forward, not hold you back. That loved one would not want to see you wallow in self-pity. After the loss of my sons, my husband and I adopted our West African daughters, including Michaela, in memory of them. Consequently, the world now has Michaela, and our golden years are brightened by six girls.
Powerful words and advice! Michalea, what is the single most powerful lesson or piece of advice you’ve learned from your parents?
Michaela: From the interaction between my parents, I learned what a good marriage looks like, so I know that I should not settle for less than what they have together.
Elaine, as a parent, at what point did you feel like you were facing the greatest challenge for Michaela? How did you face it and how was it resolved?
Elaine: My greatest challenge for Michaela came when she reached her teen years and went away to school. I felt that she was losing all of the values that we had taught her, and I worried that she was falling apart emotionally. I also felt that she was too young to be wandering a major city on her own. My husband and I solved that problem by selling our roomy country home in northern Vermont and squeezing into a New York City apartment with Michaela and our other teen daughters. Fortunately, Michaela has grown up and moved on, so we will, too. We are planning to move into another roomy house near Atlanta, Georgia. So when Michaela returns on one of her many visits home, the girls will have space to enjoy themselves.
Michaela, were you prepared for the racism and cutthroat competition you encountered in the traditional world of ballet? Where did you find the strength to push back against these stereotypes?
Michaela: I was prepared for it, so there were no surprises in store for me. When I was a little girl, my parents used to warn me, “Life is hard for a black girl. She is judged against stereotypes. In the ballet world, and even in other careers, you have to be ten times better at what you do than the white girl next to you.” I think that I found the strength to push back against the stereotypes because my parents never denied them. They were always there to validate my feelings about them and to give me emotional support. My mom may be the color of a glass of milk, but at heart she is a black mother and understands me perfectly.
Your love of ballet has always trended toward the classics, where companies have traditionally focused on willowy white dancers. What do you think has to happen to allow more dancers of color to rise in these ballet companies?
A few things need to happen to allow more dancers of color to rise in classical ballet companies. I’ve used my daffodil and poppy analogy many times. Right now the corps de ballet of these classical companies is filled with daffodils. If you throw one poppy into the field, then she is very noticeable, even more than the principal. If you don’t want that to happen, then throw in more poppies. That evens out the field. So artistic directors must make an effort to hire more qualified female black ballet dancers for their corps.
Some artistic directors claim that there are no well-trained black dancers to hire. That’s just not true. For years the Dance Theatre of Harlem School and the Rock School for Dance Education have focused their time and effort on bringing female dancers into the fold, but the companies just don’t hire them. I was a student on scholarship at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, had leading roles in the ABT Studio Company Showcase, and still I was rejected by companies in the US and Canada. Ironically, I ended up in one of the top classical companies in the world, so I couldn’t have been all that terrible and ill-trained.
The onus is not only on the ballet companies. It’s on the black dancers, as well. They need to work super hard, keep in shape and maintain a pleasant attitude . . . hold your anger in, even if you feel that you are being insulted. Invest wisely. Save your babysitting money for the Youth America Grand Prix, where you can be noticed by the best ballet schools and companies. Step outside your comfort zone and apply for every summer intensive you can. I remember walking into one summer intensive audition and being the only black girl among hundreds of kids! I wanted to run away, but I didn’t—and I got a full scholarship. Also, beg if you have to. I know of dancers whose churches have held bake sales to get their members to competitions and summer intensives.
Do you have any advice for other teens trying to overcome obstacles while chasing their dreams?
No matter what your dream might be, and no matter what race or gender you might be, you will have to work very hard to make your dream come true, and you will have to be persistent. Dreams do not come to lazy people or people who give up too easily. In New York City, there is a restaurant in which the servers sing to their customers. After working very hard for hours, these young servers go home and rehearse their dance, voice or music because they are all aiming for roles on Broadway. That is persistence.
Your courage has made you a role model to so many young girls. Who is your role model(s)?
In ballet—Lauren Anderson, formerly of the Houston Ballet, and Heidi Cruz of the Pennsylvania Ballet.
In life—my mom, of course.
You’re currently overseas, dancing with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Was it hard to move away from your family? What has your experience there taught you?
It has been very hard for me living away from my family. I really miss everyone in my family, especially my mom and my sister Mia. At first I thought, I’m an adult. I can do this, but now I realize that being an adult isn’t just a matter of age. There was a lot I had to learn and I’m still learning; like how to stick to a budget. My dad always told me, “Michaela, money doesn’t grow on trees.” Now I believe him.
Do you have a funny or sweet story from that experience, or a moment that you shared while writing your memoir?
Michaela: A couple of them . . . One evening, I remembered something that I wanted to add to the manuscript. I was so excited that I immediately called my mother. I was rambling on and on. Then I asked, “Did you get that down?” Mom laughed and said, “No, not quite. It’s 3:30 in the morning here.”
Another time, I called her and said, “I just read the finished chapters on my life in Africa, and I cried and cried.”
Mom said, “But it’s your story.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think it was so sad when it was happening,” I said, and Mom laughed. I really hadn’t realized how pathetic I was in Africa until Mom put all of those memories together for me on paper in really pretty words.”
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Michaela: I hope that they will realize that no matter how tough their life is, they can make it better. I also want them to know that if someone helps them to reach their goal, they must pay that forward by helping others.
Elaine: For those with cozy lifestyles, I’m hoping that they take away the idea that there are many millions of kids out there who are needy, and perhaps they can perform some small act to improve their lives. For those who are faced with adversity, I hope that they take away the idea that they should not be afraid or too prideful to seek help, if they alone cannot make their dreams come true. The world is a tough ocean to navigate, and it helps to have a crew.
Thank you, Michaela and Elaine! And hey everyone, dont miss amazing memoir TAKING FLIGHT when it releases October 14!