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Star dancer born into war grows up to inspire

JOHANNESBURG -- Michaela DePrince was little more than a toddler when she saw her first ballerina — an image in a magazine page blown against the gate of the orphanage where she ended up during Sierra Leone's civil war. It showed an American ballet dancer posed on tip toe.

“All I remember is she looked really, really happy,” Michaela told The Associated Press this week. She wished “to become this exact person.”

From the misery of the orphanage “I saw hope in it. And I ripped the page out and I stuck it in my underwear because I didn't have any place to put it.”

Now Michaela's the one inspiring young Africans: She escaped war and suffers a skin pigmentation disorder that had her labeled “the devil's child” at the orphanage. She's an African dancer in the world of ballet that sees few leading black females. She was adopted and raised to become a ballerina in the U.S. — a country where she believed everyone walked around on tippy toes.

On July 19, Michaela performs in her first professional full ballet, dancing the part of Gulnare in Le Corsaire, as a guest artist of South Africa's two biggest dance companies, Mzansi Productions and South African Ballet Theatre.

Her ascent to stardom in the ballet world has been fast, if not typical. At 17, she's already been featured in a documentary film and has performed on TV show “Dancing With the Stars.” She just graduated from high school and the American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and will go on to work at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Her family recently moved from Vermont to New York City to support her dance career and her sister's acting and singing. Michaela said she has been offered many opportunities to dance with companies in Europe and in the U.S.

Her big brown eyes are framed by mascara-coated lashes to cover their whiteness stemming from the vitiligo skin disorder. Tiny wisps of white curls peek through the dark brown hair pinned into a bun. Her wide infectious grin turned strained as she chatted about her childhood.

“I lost both my parents, so I was there (the orphanage) for about a year and I wasn't treated very well because I had vitiligo,” she said Monday. “We were ranked as numbers and number 27 was the least favorite and that was my number, so I got the least amount of food, the least amount of clothes and what not.”

Michaela said she walked shoeless for miles to reach a refugee camp after word came that the orphanage would be bombed. Elaine DePrince, who adopted Michaela and two other girls, Mia and Mariel, from the orphanage, said she met the girls in Ghana in 1999. Michaela was 4.

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In this Tuesday, July 10 photo, dancer Michaela DePrince, left, rehearses for her lead role in Le Corsaire with dancer Andile Ndlovu in Johannesburg. DePrince, who was born in Sierra Leone, escaped civil war and was adopted by a family in the U.S. This will be DePrince's first professional full ballet role.

(AP)

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