Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina
Michaela DePrince was known as girl Number 27 at the orphanage, where she was abandoned at a young age and tormented as a “devil child” for a skin condition that makes her skin appear spotted. But it was at the orphanage that Michaela would find a picture of a beautiful ballerina en pointe that would help change the course of her life.
At the age of four, Michaela was adopted by an American family, who encouraged her love of dancing and enrolled her in classes. She went on to study at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre and is now the youngest principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She has appeared in the ballet documentary First Position, as well as on Dancing with the Stars, Good Morning America, and Nightline.
In this engaging, moving, and unforgettable memoir, Michaela shares her dramatic journey from an orphan in West Africa to becoming one of ballet’s most exciting rising stars.
TAKING FLIGHT is both potent and potentially worldview-expanding. Whether you’re interested in ballet or not, this YA memoir is a stirring must-read.
Let me start out by saying that this reader, personally, has no particular interest in dancing of any kind. But when I came across a news article several years ago detailing some of Michaela DePrince’s life, I was immediately drawn in. Her background and force of personality were uniquely captivating, and her physical ability was ethereal. I had to know more about her. This memoir provided exactly the resource I was hoping for to that end.
Micheala DePrince’s life story begins in a war-torn Sierra Leone—a brilliant, headstrong child born to doting parents who are in the severe cultural minority in regard to their value for the female gender. Tragically losing both of her parents proves to be only the beginning of her hardships. Micheala’s spotted skin pigmentation marks her as a “devil child” and she suffers tremendous abuses at the hands of cruel and superstitious caretakers—beginning with her own uncle and continuing on as she becomes the least-favorite child at the orphanage she is sold to. She somehow survives horrific war violence, trauma, neglect, starvation, disease, abuse, and the brutal misogyny of Sharia Law—before being adopted by a big-hearted American couple at the age of 4. And a chance encounter with a magazine cover (featuring a prima ballerina) becomes an unlikely focalpoint that hones her new life.
Michela DePrince’s mere survival defies all probability. The fact that she has also excelled in drive and discipline to the point where she is currently a renowned classical ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet is beyond inspiring—bordering on the miraculous.
DePrince’s writing is strong, straightforward, and devoid of frills—effective and sometimes blunt in conveyance. She lays out her story like dance steps. Precise and intentional, acknowledging pain without faltering or dwelling on it any longer than necessary. The first 70 pages are dedicated to sharing her pre-adoption childhood, and while the content is often difficult to read, it makes her current triumph all the more sweet. Her challenges don’t end simply because she’s given 1st-world opportunities. Instead they change form—appearing in her initial struggles with adapting to her adoptive country, in the heartbreak of losing a beloved sibling, in the effects of residual PTSD, in her own self-consciousness over her skin condition, and eventually in confronting the many faces and forms of racism in everyday life as well as the realm of professional ballet.
I’ve noted some reviewers take issue with the credibility of DePrince’s memories from the age of 3-4 while she was still in Sierra Leone. But considering she could read and write by age 3 and spoke five languages (thanks to both her biological parents’ attentiveness and the nature of their merchant livelihood), the degree of trauma she endured, and her exceedingly advanced talent and aptitude in spite of all odds, this reader can’t see any reason to find fault with her recollections. If anyone is a clear exception to the norm, it is this astounding young woman.
Highly Recommended For: Anyone and everyone.
Don’t wait to get a hold of this book. Come and dance a mile in this girl’s pointe shoes.
DePrince’s story doesn’t merely fly, it soars.