It’s not every day that you come across a life story as shattering and empowering as that of classical ballerina Michaela DePrince. It’s also not every day that you encounter a first person narrative told with such unabashed freshness that leaves you with goosebumps on every page. On several occasions the words might swim in tears as you read; ultimately you emerge with a taste of the deep hunger this fantastic young dancer has nurtured, not necessarily for dance, but for reaching for her best. It might sound like I’m about to burst into clichéd song, but this book averts corny Disneyishness in its blatant and direct embrace of the notion of hope.
Michaela DePrince, born Mabinty Bagura in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s had a one-in-a-million chance of a life; in the retelling of it, she is frank and bold and the material is readable and moving for young readers and old ones. More than anything, her tale is about the hardy stuff of which a toddler’s dreams are made.
Witness to the horror of losing her adored parents during the violent uprisings in her country of birth, DePrince was a tender three-and-a-half year old with a nascent lust for life and a passion for languages when everything that she knew and cherished was brutally broken. She was put in the care of an uncle who made his negative opinion of her cruelly blatant. She was shifted to an orphanage where she was mooted “Number Twenty Seven” which she later understood as a means of reflecting the establishment’s least favourite child.
Traumatised by loss, broken by neglect and the witnessing of horror, to add to her agony, DePrince was born with the condition of vitiligo which manifests in uneven pigmentation: this complicated the stigmas she faced in her own society. A chance encounter with a bit of rubbish in a windstorm gave voice to the child’s big dreams: when the wind blew a 1979 magazine cover bearing the image of a western classical ballerina into the tiny Mabinty’s awareness. She had never encountered anything like this and the dream was cast, prompted by mystery and fuelled by her inner engine, which kept her emotionally afloat amid real horror.
During that year, she, together with other children from the Sierra Leone orphanage, was adopted by an American family who raised them and enabled DePrince’s dreams to reach astonishing fruition. Much more than a litany of dance achievements, however, this book is a modest and clearly written one which leads you to laugh and cry and be astonished at the challenges that this young woman faced, head on. There might be a little too much in-house dance information as DePrince describes her adolescent years and her engagement with ballet schools and professional dance companies, if you’re not a dance enthusiast; but her emphasis on the problematics of what is recognised as the medium’s most unforgiving genre, ballet, is spot on. She pummels the confrontation between technique and emotion as she will open your eyes and head to the realities of racism within the genre.
You may have seen her perform with Mzansi Ballet in Johannesburg a few years ago, when she was an invited guest, and you may look at the structure and preciousness of this tale through the same kind of tears evoked in the north-east English 2000 drama Billy Elliot by Stephen Daldry, where the baby dancer with a heart on fire for something he can’t quite articulate grows into an irrepressible force of pure art. Inevitably, though, what you take away from this writing crafted with an endearing sense of directness is that dreams do come true.
This is the kind of book that should be on the shelf of any child. And any teacher. And any dancer or artist. It’s not a simple rag to riches yarn: there are lots of tears and twisty paths along the way, but it is a glowing tribute to the child herself and the people who raised her and allowed her to soar without clipping her wings.
Hope in a Ballet Shoe: Orphaned by war, saved by ballet by Michaela and Elaine DePrince (Faber and Faber, London 2014). This book is distributed by Jonathan Ball in South Africa.