Leaping toward fame

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Michaela DePrince, 12, commands attention as she moves around the ballet studio.

The movements of her muscular legs and lean arms are precise. She holds her head high. When she leaps into a mid-air split, otherwise known as a grand jete, the arc of her legs measures more than 180 degrees.

Michaela’s look of focused concentration is broken by her instructor, Vanina Wilson, who reminds her that these rehearsals are a good time to practice smiling. Michaela does, and it is as if the last piece of the performance falls into place.

Michaela, a sixth grader who has attended Williston Central School since September, won second place in the pre-competitive age division of the Youth America Grand Prix regional semi-final competition earlier this month. At the end of April, she heads to New York City for the international competition, the second year she will compete there.

Sitting outside the ballet studio last Wednesday night after more than three hours of practice, Michaela lets her hair down to match her blue jeans and t-shirt from a swimming race. Her toenails are painted a light pink – the color that reminds her of the first ballet dancer she saw at age four, when she was an orphan in Sierra Leone in West Africa.

“I found a dance magazine with a dancer on her tippy toes, as I thought of it,” Michaela said. “As soon as I saw that, I wanted to be just like her if I went to America. … I ripped the front cover off and put it in my underwear and I brought the rest of the magazines to the kids in the orphanage.”

Michaela said that upon her adoption, she showed her adoptive mother the picture. In time, she learned enough English to communicate her dream.

“When I came to America, she told me she’d give me lessons and I had to work hard and if I worked hard I’d become a good dancer,” Michaela said, referencing a conversation with her mother. “And I worked hard. Really hard.”

Michaela was learning ballet within six months of arriving in the United States. First she attended the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, but she quickly outgrew the pre-ballet instruction. She attended a ballet school in New Jersey for two years, before returning to the Rock School. Upon the family’s move to Vermont last year, she began training at the New England Ballet Conservatory.

Wilson, the conservatory’s director, said Michaela’s athleticism is a good match for ballet.

“She’s very advanced for her age group,” Wilson said this week. “She’s at the level where she can take classes with 16-year-old pre-professional dancers. That’s a very unusual physical ability she has that allows her to do the things she does at her age.”

Wilson, who herself is a retired professional ballerina from France, said Michaela, if she pursues ballet professionally, shouldn’t have any problems finding a job.

Her mother said it’s not just dancing that gets Michaela excited about the competitions.

“She meets kids from all over the world,” Elaine DePrince said. “She has friends from Japan and Brazil. She can’t wait to go to New York for that reason. She’s been talking about it for months.”

Ballet itself is Michaela’s first passion. She recently gave up swimming, in spite of winning medals last month at a regional swim competition. Sleepovers and parties with her many friends must be sacrificed if she is to have enough energy for her six-days-a-week of practice.

“Dancing makes me happy, it makes me not think about any of my worries,” Michaela said. Michaela said she used to perform West African dances as a child. “When I used to dance in the orphanage, I felt like I was free. I didn’t feel like anyone didn’t like me. I felt like everyone loved me.”

When asked where she hopes to be 10 years from now, Michaela said in a big ballet company, starting to become famous.

“Well, no,” she says, stopping herself. She waves her hands and gets a big smile on her face. “Just famous. Just famous.”