JUST

THE BONES

MATTER

Photographer—Jasper Soloff, Stylist—Alexandra Dorschner

and Yên Nguyen, Grooming—Shideh Kafei,
Set Design—Frank Oliva, Gaffer—Owen Smith-Clark

Written by Molly Williams

Interviewed by Satchel Lee

 

For a sample of the trials faced by Black ballerinas, Google “brown pointe shoes.” Until pointe shoe company Gaynor Minden unveiled two shades of brown in 2017, dark-skinned ballerinas invariably wore shoes that did not match their skin tone or were forced to resort to dying their shoes themselves. The prevalence of such micro aggressions reflects the exclusionary underpinnings of ballet culture, which seems built to prevent Black ballerinas like Michaela DePrince from making it to the top.

Still, at twenty-three years old DePrince is a rapidly ascending star. Born in Sierra Leone, DePrince was orphaned as a child during the civil war there, where she also faced discrimination and abuse as a result of vitiligo. Her interest in ballet had been piqued early on; when she was adopted by an American family at a young age, she found the resources to explore her passion, discovering a striking talent along the way. She has successfully stared down not only the racism of her chosen profession, but also so many other obstacles that her bestselling memoir, Taking Flight, is currently being adapted into a forthcoming biopic, which Madonna plans to direct. DePrince’s history is remarkable, but it doesn’t define her. Warm, driven, open, and unflinchingly honest, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Satchel Lee

Michaela, you have grown so much as an artist, it seems, over the past few years. What do you think has kept you moving forward, and growing?

MICHAELA DEPRINCE

I used to never focus on myself. I didn’t want to see myself because I was scared that I wouldn’t like what I saw. So I took some time off. I went away to London, where I met some incredible people. I read the book The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I realized that I was not living in the present moment, and as using pain body to feed my inspiration instead.

SL

What is “pain body”?

MD

Pain body is the accumulation of our past trauma and pain that causes us to use negative vibes as motivation. Like, Oh, people don’t like me. I’m going to prove myself to them, instead of using positivity. I started working on myself more and realized that I needed a change. I needed to be around positive people. I feel different people’s energies and I never really took the time before to explore that.

SL

How do you surround yourself with positivity?

MD

For the past two years I have been doing different projects that allow me to meet other people and try and grow into the person I want to be. Before, I was just doing things that people wanted me to do. I wasn’t fully present. [Now] I have a smaller group of friends, I have a different circle, and I feel a lot happier. I’m not as tired from constantly pushing myself down and not giving myself enough time to breathe and take care of myself.

SL

As a ballet dancer, you have to develop so much discipline. I can’t even begin to comprehend it! I’m curious about the routines and practices that you’ve cultivated in your dance life, and also in your personal life, that have helped you get to where you are.

MD

My daily routine is consistent; I have specific things I do when I wake up. When I travel, I even adjust my mealtime based on time zones, because otherwise I would get stressed out. I have always had discipline, because I always had to prove people wrong and make sure I was accomplishing my goals. For dancing, it was a bit different because so many people told me to stop trying because I am Black.

SL

I’m sure people would say, and still do, “A Black Ballerina? Get outta here!” I took ballet and gymnastics when I was younger and I will always remember standing in first position and having my teachers come up behind me and say “You’re sticking your butt out!” I was like, “I promise you I’m not.”

MD

People constantly force you to be somebody else! I have an incredible mentor who works at Julliard, and I was finally able to be myself with her. I didn't have to starve myself to look like somebody else. Before, I had no energy, until she explained to me that you have to align your bones. My body changed because of that. It’s just the bones that matter; the outside is other stuff. People force others to look a certain way, but it’s not about your figure, it’s about how you move the audience when you dance. If you’re moving them and you’re a hard worker, it doesn’t matter whether you have stripes or spots. People say they find it distracting to see Black ballerinas on stage, especially if there is just one… Okay, well, let’s put more on stage, and then you wouldn’t be distracted.

 
 Talent’s own jacket,  Vintage Dress

Talent’s own jacket,

Vintage Dress

 
 
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SL

So about this photo shoot… For anyone that doesn’t recognize its iconic setup, we were inspired by Carrie Mae Weems’s seminal Kitchen Table Series. One reason we wanted to draw upon Weems’s work is the extreme discipline she had in creating it. Every day, she would photograph herself. And she used herself as a subject because she was there. So there was a practice to it, along with the impetus to insert Black women into the canon of fine art and create representation. And you kind of touched on this but I think it’s interesting, this juxtaposition— there’s always this conversation—

MD

Yeah, I really don’t understand why we have to keep this conversation. I feel like we are constantly going backwards and never moving forward. It’s unbelievable.

SL

I agree!

MD

Even now with the movie being made, I really have to think about things that people have said to me. I remember it took me the longest time to be able to wear lipstick because I once wore red lipstick on stage and one of my teachers said, “Never wear that, you look like a chimpanzee.”

SL

Are you serious?

MD

Yes… And I thought moving to Europe would be different.

SL

You don’t feel it’s different?

MD

Not really. In the US, I do get a bit scared in a particularly American way, especially because my family is in the South, in Atlanta. Holland is very international; I love

 

Amsterdam and its culture. But, even so, if you look or dress a certain way, they automatically assume that you are a certain way. I remember one time I was walking across the street—I had crutches still— and this white couple was walking towards me… but they crossed to the other side of the street. I kept walking and then I turned around to see them cross back. I thought, That’s a bit strange, maybe something was in their way. What did they think I was going to do to them?

SL

Right. With a crutch. [Laughs] So then, after dance. What’s the plan?

MD

I work with War Child Holland because I am a war orphan. They’ve helped me and I want to give back; I want to study human rights, especially for women in Africa. I have experienced some horrible things, and I have met some people who have experienced some horrible things as well, especially women. I want to be able to give them the opportunity to have a voice, especially in countries where they feel they don’t matter. I met this one incredible woman… She was raped by a man and later gave birth to his child and,

because the child was not fathered by someone in the community, the woman had to get rid of her child. That isn’t her fault, and I want women like her to feel protected. I grew up not feeling protected, also because of my vitiligo. I had the opportunity to have a second life by getting adopted and being able to pursue my career in dance. I’ve been so blessed by so many incredible things, and I think everybody deserves the chance to taste what that’s like.

SL

We’re in a weird space with the Internet and Instagram, where we are constantly shifting between two identities, the performed self and the inner self. I know that I, and others, struggle to navigate that. How do you negotiate that space, particularly as you have gotten more famous?

MD

I love being a role model and I love being able to inspire people and tell my story, but I also was struggling with PTSD. My ruptured Achilles surgery gave me an opportunity to restart and reinvent myself. Before, I had nightmares every single night and couldn’t function because everything was a constant reminder of my trauma. Every single day, I was reminded that I

 Vintage Blouse Courtesy of Beacon’s Closet,Vintage Red Pants

Vintage Blouse Courtesy of Beacon’s Closet,Vintage Red Pants

 
 Vintage Blouse Courtesy of Beacon’s Closet  I.N.D.Y MCF Sunglasses

Vintage Blouse Courtesy of Beacon’s Closet

I.N.D.Y MCF Sunglasses

was an orphan girl who became a ballerina; that became my identity. I had nothing else. So I started a YouTube channel for myself, to see how I could change. I wanted people to stop seeing my life as a story and to stop seeing that story as a fairy tale. You are constantly growing and experiencing conflicts both within and from the outside, and it would make me so upset when I would give speeches saying, “This is not a fairytale,” but I would still always smile. I thought, Maybe it’s my fault that I’m doing this. So I wanted to restart. I reset my whole Instagram. I wanted to really show people who I am and what I believe in, instead of just saying what I thought would help me get where I want to be.

Also, I want to start a school in Sierra Leone, so I kept thinking, Okay, it’s fine, do these things because then you’ll be able to start your school, it doesn’t matter how you feel. That didn’t work. It’s so hard, because you see so many things on the Internet and you think, I should look like that; I should smile like this; I should do that.

But how do you feel when you do these things? Are you happy? Do you feel content? Do you think you’re growing? Have you learned something from this? What will this teach you? I’m very happy now because I’m not hurting or sacrificing myself to please other people.