In The Wings: Michaela DePrince

November 28, 2001

At 14, Michaela DePrince is all business: fiercely focused on her goal to dance with a company that balances classical and contemporary. To get there, she’s training at The Rock School for Dance Education.

“It’s hard to keep a summer intensive pace all year long, but The Rock manages to do that,” says DePrince.

Each year, The Rock gives students approximately 30 opportunities to perform and compete. “We focus on developing the precision, accuracy and strength dancers need to become artistic athletes,” says Director Bojan Spassoff. “Every class encourages students to take risks.” The school has become known for producing such powerhouses as American Ballet Theatre’s Christine Shevchenko and San Francisco Ballet’s Isaac Hernández.

Not only is DePrince one of The Rock’s most promising students, her story is the most unusual. Born in war-torn Sierra Leone, DePrince lost both parents by age 3, and without their protection, the villagers left her to die. They considered her a child of the devil because of white freckles on her chest and neck. (In fact, it’s a condition in which skin loses natural color.)

Luckily, an uncle who ran an orphanage rescued DePrince, and a year later she was adopted by a couple from New Jersey. Her new parents enrolled her in a short dance class—half ballet, half tap. “After a couple of weeks, I complained that we weren’t learning real ballet,” she says. “My mom began driving me to The Rock, where I enrolled in pre-ballet 2.” When her family moved to Vermont, DePrince left the school for a year, but last fall she returned as a boarder. (There are  more than 30 students who board.)

Her ambition has paid off. She stands out for her high, clean jumps and how she holds her relevé for a split-second longer so you can see it before she turns. “Michaela has surprising nuance and skill for someone so young. She is eager and vivacious, which makes her a spectacular performer,” says Spassoff.

Up at 7 am, DePrince takes her first academic class at 8. Technique starts at 10:30, and depending on the day, other classes range from adagio to partnering. Ideally, academics also take place for two hours in the afternoon. “But sometimes, I have too many rehearsals,” DePrince says, “so I set aside at least two  hours at night to keep up.” To prevent friends from interrupting, she calls her mother, who keeps the line open on speaker phone. “It’s like doing homework at home,” says DePrince. “It helps with homesickness too.”

Of her future, DePrince says, “I’d love to become a principal with a world-class ballet company. Everybody notices my contemporary, because I’m a strong dancer with high jumps. But I actually love classical ballet. My favorite variation is Aurora, Act I, from The Sleeping Beauty.

Someday, DePrince also wants to write her memoirs. She’ll show she’s no child of the devil, but a gift to the world.