A real-life fairy tale is unfolding before America’s eyes this week as the new documentary, “First Position,” hits theaters. The movie highlights the efforts of a number of adolescents from across the country as they prepared for and competed in the Youth America Grand Prix 2009.
The Youth America Grand Prix takes place annually and is one of the foremost ballet competitions in the world. Only the very best and brightest can even enter. The competition begins with about 5,000 entries and is whittled down to approximately 300 competitors in the final rounds.
By far the most compelling story in the film is that of then-14-year-old Michaela DePrince, whose story reads like a real-life fairy tale. Michaela ended up in an orphanage in her native Sierra Leone after both of her parents were murdered–casualties of the country’s civil war.
Michaela’s situation was further complicated by her genetic skin condition, vitiligo, which causes areas of hypopigmentation. In the tradition of Sierra Leone, that condition was seen as a curse. She was deemed a “devil child” and was ostracized.
Still, Michaela had the spirit of a true survivor. Finding a tattered magazine with a picture of a ballerina at her orphanage, Michaela decided that was who she would be if she ever got the chance. Recalls Michaela of the image, “She just looked so beautiful and so happy…I just thought if I got adopted, then I could be like her.”
Fate stepped in again and began the process of making Michaela’s dream into a reality. American couple Elaine and Charles DePrince decided to adopt a girl at Michaela’s orphanage. That girl was Michaela’s only friend there. Coincidentally, they both had the same name and this caused some confusion, as the administrators tried to figure out which girl the couple wanted to adopt. It was the first time the DePrinces heard of Michaela, and at that point they decided that they would adopt both girls.
Once in the United States, Michaela expressed her desire to be a ballet dancer and was enrolled in classes. There were a few bumps in the road though. Said Michaela, “When I was 8 years old, a few people were telling me I couldn’t make it because I was Black. I was rehearsing for this part in ‘The Nutcracker’ and, last minute, they said, ‘You can’t do it.’…It really caused a lot of problems for me.”
Michaela quickly bounced back and hasn’t wavered since, and that determination has paid off. After going ahead and dancing through an excruciatingly painful injury at the Youth America Grand Prix, she won a coveted scholarship to the prestigious Jackie Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theater. She appeared as a guest performer on “Dancing With the Stars” a few weeks ago and, most recently, was offered a spot at Dance Theater of Harlem.
Michaela can be seen in “First Position,” currently in theaters.