Recently, I caught a documentary on Netflix called First Position. It chronicles the journey of six young ballet students to the Youth America Grand Prix, which is one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world. All six of them are amazing dancers and athletes, but Michaela’s story really stood out to me.
Part of what impresses me is the story of her childhood. She was born in war-torn Sierra Leone, and had to endure poverty, hunger, and the death of both of her parents. She spent time in an orphanage, and was fortunate enough to be adopted by a loving couple along with her biological sister.
As if that wasn’t hardship enough (that no one should ever have to endure, by the way. I get really sad if I spend too much time thinking about the state of life in some parts of the world, but that’s another discussion for another day), she has had to fight her way into the world of ballet. Ballet dancers are a rare breed. Anyone who has any experience in dance knows how difficult and demanding ballet is. It requires extreme discipline and patience, and some people simply don’t have it. Michaela knew from an early age that she had it, and she has worked her butt off to prove it.
Typically, ballet dancers are tall and very thin. There is a certain shape that people come to expect from professional ballet dancers (as we expect from models), and people are either born that way or go to great lengths to become and remain that way. Michaela is not as tall. She’s less waif-thin and more athletic and powerful. Ballet gurus told her when she was very young that she didn’t have the “right body type” to pursue ballet and that maybe some other type of dance would be more well-suited for her.
Then, there is the issue of race, which I can’t believe is even an issue that needs to be addressed. I can be sort of racially ignorant sometimes. What I mean by that is that I grew up in such a racially/culturally diverse city/school that it never even occurred to me that people of other races/cultures could be treated differently. I never came in contact with the “white majority” until college, and only as an adult have I actually seen examples of my fellow white people acting like jerks (when it comes to diversity). When I read about Michaela’s struggles as a non-white ballerina, I almost didn’t believe it. And then I thought about it. You really don’t often see non-white ballerinas. It makes me sick to think there’s a reason for that other than “maybe people of color aren’t as interested in ballet.” I don’t like to think it’s because prejudice is still alive. Like I said, I can be really ignorant sometimes. It’s not on purpose, I promise.
Someone actually said to her (in reference to the famous role in The Nutcracker): “the world is not ready for a black Marie.” Are you kidding me? We should be further along in this battle in 2013.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough. She also has a skin condition called vitiligo, which causes unusual pigmentation of the skin and freckling.
It caused her problems in Sierra Leone, where others called her “devil child,” and it was not easy for her in the ballet world where there is such a focus on image. Her devoted mother even hand dyes many of her costumes and shoes in order to match her skin better. It’s all such an amazing labor of love.
Michaela is such a beautiful example of someone who realized at an early age what she wanted to do, and she hasn’t let a single obstacle deter her from her dream. I’m an incredible wuss. If someone tells me I can’t do something, my first instinct is to believe them. Not Michaela. Every person who told her she couldn’t be a ballerina for this reason or that reason… well they just made her fight harder for it. Maybe she’s stronger because she had to fight for her life as a child. Maybe she’s just a naturally determined person. Whatever the case, I admire her bravery, and she’s only 18 years old. I can only image what’s in store for her as her career develops and even in her future beyond ballet.
She is currently dancing for the Dance Theater of Harlem, and you can learn more about her in the film First Position. She also has appeared on Dancing With the Stars.
Here’s an article from Teen Vogue that tells more of her story.