Following is the full transcript of ballet dancer Michaela DePrince’s TEDx Talk titled ‘From ‘devil’s child’ to star ballerina’ at TEDxAmsterdam 2014 conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: From ‘devil’s child’ to star ballerina by Michaela DePrince at TEDxAmsterdam 2014
My name is Michaela DePrince. When I first started to write my speech, I thought, maybe, I could give it a fairytale kind of twist. But only because most people tell me that my life is a fairytale. But I have to say I strongly disagree.
Yes, I got what I’ve always dreamed of, but I had to fight for it. I wasn’t always called Michaela DePrince. My original name is Mabinty Bangura, and I was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa in 1995, four years after the bloody civil war. This war would displace thousands of men, it would cause thousands of women and children to be raped, and over 50,000 people would be killed. My parents were among them.
I was born with vitiligo, a skin condition. It left white patches all over my body. I was different. In Sierra Leone, they didn’t understand the fact that just because I had white patches on my skin, that I was just born this way, they thought I was a curse. They started to call me “the devil’s child,” because anybody who would look like this would be the child of the devil.
I was ridiculed and harassed, because I looked different. My parents tried to defend me as much as they could, but they understood that I’d never get married because of the way I looked. They tried to educate me, they taught me to read, and they started to save money for my education.
But when my parents passed away, I was defenseless and alone. I’ve never been so scared in my life. My uncle took me to the orphanage, knowing that he could never get a good price for me as a bride, and never came back for me.
In the orphanage we were taken care of by aunties, not like the aunties you have at home, the aunties who love you. They care about you no matter what you do. But these aunties were uneducated women who only took care us to bring food home for their kids. They would wash our clothes and give us food. But these aunties had their favorites.
There were 27 kids in the orphanage. Number 1 got the biggest portion of food and the first choice of clothes. Number 27 got the smallest portion of food and the last choice of clothes. I was number 27.
Everyday in the orphanage, I was starving. I have never felt so alone before. How could this happen to me? This is when I realized it was much easier to not care about anybody because they always ended up leaving me. But then I made a friend in the orphanage. Her name was Mabinty, Mabinty Suma. Number 26 was always in ill health, sick, but she always had a kind heart. And she was always good of full cheer.
Number 26 would always listen to all my fears, and all my dreams. Whenever I was scared, she would sing to me. When I couldn’t fall asleep, she would tell me a bedtime story. And Number 26 is still doing that 15 years later, as my sister Mia. And one day, the big wind threw a magazine right onto the gate at the orphanage. I reached out, and I grabbed it. And I saw something. This amazing creature, this person I have never seen before, she is on her tippytoes, and in this beautiful pink costume. But what really struck me the most was the fact that she looked so happy. I hadn’t been happy in a long time.
So I thought to myself, if she is happy because this is what she is doing, then, maybe, I could be happy too someday. I had to be this person, I just had to be, in order to become something. So I ripped the cover off the magazine, and I put it in my underwear because I had nowhere else to put it. Because as number 27, I didn’t have anything to do, they would never give me toys or any clothes, so where else could I put it?
And then, a teacher came to the orphanage to teach us English. She was also pregnant at that time. I showed teacher Sarah the magazine cover, and she explained to me this person was dancing ballet. She was a ballerina. I was going to be this ballerina, I just had to be. I’d always go onto my tippytoes everyday and practice just like the ballerina. I thought, maybe, one day, with everything going so well, I finally had somebody who cared about me, maybe one day I could be this ballerina.
Teacher Sarah cared about me so much, and she knew how important it was for me to get a good education, so she would always give me extra lessons. After a few extra lessons, teacher Sarah and I started to walk towards the gate. Me twirling around, trying to be the ballerina on the magazine. And all of a sudden, two rebels come towards the gate, and a little rebel lagging behind them. And around the corner, a truck full of them. They were laughing and cheering. They must have been drinking a lot or under some type of drug. And they saw us. They saw that teacher Sarah was pregnant.
They started betting on whether or not it was a girl or a boy. And so they decided to find out. They took their machetes out and cut her stomach. It was a baby girl. If it was a boy, maybe she would have lived because they would have taught him to become a rebel when he was older. But it was a girl, so they cut her arms and legs off in front of me, and I tried to go save her so I went underneath the gate. The little boy thought he should try to copy the older rebels. He took his machete out and cut my stomach.
Now that you’ve heard my story, the beginning of my life, do you think it’s a fairytale? But soon, my life would turn around. Soon, I would have positivity in my life. I would find out that I was going to be adopted by an American family. It took me a while to get to my adopted family. We had to walk, all the orphanages, all the orphan kids had to walk from Makeni, Sierra Leone, all the way to New Guinea, and from Guinea we took a plane to (sic) [Makeni].
I was very sick when I got off the plane, and just miserable, and you know, how could my life get any better? I was a devil’s child; of course nothing good could happen to me. And also I was miserable because I thought I would never see my best friend again. But then I saw her, the lady in the bright red shoes. With the bright white, white, white hair; I have never seen anything like it before. She was my new mamma. She reached out and said, “I’m your new mamma.” She grabbed my hand, and my best friend’s hand, and walked us away. I was getting adopted with my best friend.
We got to the hotel, and once my mum put her luggage down, I looked through everything, I looked through every nook and cranny trying to find my pointe shoes, my tiara, and my tutu, because isn’t that what always happens in a fairytale? But they weren’t there. I didn’t speak any English, so I thought about the only way I could show her was to show her the magazine. I took it out of my underwear, and I showed her, and she understood right away. She said: “You will dance.”
When I got to the U.S., I started taking ballet classes. My mum drove me every single day. Except before my first ballet class, I was so scared to show my spots for the kids to make fun of me. I begged my mamma to please buy me a leotard to hide all my spots. It was a long sleeved leotard that went all the way up to my neck. It was so hot in it she had to take it off right away. And I put on my pink leotards and tights.
I went to class once a week, twice a week, and then, eventually, by the time I was 10 years old, I was dancing five times a week. I worked as hard as I possibly could because I had to be this ballerina; it was the only way for me to be happy. But while I was working hard, I lost somebody. I lost my 24-year-old brother, Teddy. He was the person who made me be able to trust men again, to not be scared of black men who were shouting, to not be scared of men in general, to not be scared of my own father.
And again, this is what always happens when I care about people. They always die and leave me. I decided to push my family away because if they died and left me I don’t know what I could do. I didn’t want them to die because I cared about them. But my parents were able to convince me that even though the people I love may die, their love will always stay with me. Their love is a part of who I am today.
I worked hard for many, many years and then, finally, my hard work paid off. I got accepted into a professional ballet company. I had become the ballerina that I’ve always dreamed of. I couldn’t believe it. How could this happen to me? Again, I was the devil’s child. With all this hard work going on, I didn’t think that any dream like this could ever come true. I was very happy, finally. For once.
But the reason why I am here today, the reason why I am telling you my story is because I want to encourage young people to aspire to dream. I want people to understand that it is OK to be different, it is OK to stand out. I’m different. And I want you to understand to believe in yourself, to believe that you have talent even if you don’t think you do. No matter what circumstances you are under, no matter how poor, or how sad you are at any given moment, believe. And dare to dream. Dare to push boundaries. Dare to be different, dare to stand out, and all above. And last but not least, don’t be afraid of living and loving. And this is how I express myself. [Ballet dancing]