Ballerinas aren’t often described as powerful. Strong? Maybe. Dynamic? Sure. But when you watch 17-year-old Michaela DePrince, a student at The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, powerful is the first word that comes to mind. While her technique is elegant and fluid—particularly her expressive, eloquent port de bras—underneath the surface there’s a turbo-charged engine. You can almost hear it revving as she flies across the floor, tossing off supersized sauts de chats and triple pirouettes and finishing with an endless balance in arabesque.
Most dancers trace their fascination with ballet back to their first time seeing The Nutcracker or a dance special on TV. But Michaela’s story is dramatically different. Born in war-torn Sierra Leone, she lost both parents at a very young age, and was taken in by an orphanage. When she was 4, she found a European magazine lying outside the orphanage gates. “It had a picture of a woman standing on her tippy toes,” Michaela says. “I didn’t know it then, but she was standing on pointe.” Fascinated, she ripped out the page and put it in her underwear for safekeeping. “I decided that if I ever got adopted and made it to America, I would dance like the lady in the magazine,” she says. A few months later, an American couple did adopt Michaela, and she moved to Cherry Hill, NJ. Though she spoke little English, she showed her adopted mother the magazine photo. Before long, Michaela was enrolled in ballet classes at The Rock School in Philadelphia, where she continued to train until she was 15.
Michaela developed a formidable technique at The Rock, which led to a slew of awards when she began competing at Youth America Grand Prix as a teen. Film director and producer Bess Kargman took notice of Michaela’s competition success and selected her to be one of the young dancers featured in the 2011 documentary about YAGP, First Position. The film follows Michaela’s path to the 2010 NYC finals of the competition, a journey that concludes with a beaming Michaela accepting a scholarship to the JKO School.
Now, Michaela is adding polish and finesse to her technique at JKO. “My teachers here have shown me that it’s not all about the tricks—about how high your leg goes or how many pirouettes you do,” she says. “They’ve helped me focus on artistry.” What does the future hold for the talented dancer? After a guest performance in the Netherlands last winter, she started dreaming about joining a company like Dutch National Ballet.
“I took class with the company when I was over there, and I just loved the way everyone danced,” she says. “They express themselves in a unique, exciting way. I want to be part of something like that.”