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Michaela DePrince: The Dancer Destigmatizing Mental Health

Story by Willa Bennett / Photography by Jasper Soloff

Dutch National Ballet Soloist, Michaela DePrince, sits across from me with an aura of strength. I watch as she perfects her posture, then calls attention to her flexed swollen ankle.

Well-known for writing Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, starring in the 2011 doc First Position, and appearing in Beyoncé's Lemonade, DePrince has not only already had an impressive career, but continues to break boundaries. Madonna is even directing a film based on her life.

Born in the midst of a decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone, Michaela was abandoned at an orphanage by her uncle after the death of both her biological parents at age three. It wasn't until she was adopted by an American family in New Jersey that she was given the space to dive deeply into dance.

"It's more than just wanting to be a ballerina," she tells me. "[Ballet] is part of who I am. I grew up not feeling good enough and thinking that no one would ever love me enough to be adopted." She jokes, "I literally chose an art form that fosters the same sort of you're not good enough environment."

DePrince lifts up her pant leg and shows me her injured achilles up-close, which has briefly put her dance career on-hold to focus on what's next.

"Next though, I want to do something completely different," she says. "I want to be a human rights lawyer or a humanitarian. I want to give back to people, and use my platform as much as possible. I feel the most powerful when I hear from someone that I've changed their lives or inspired them to do what they love."

On her 24th birthday, Michaela caught up with PAPER to talk about her profound relationship to the arts, the lack of conversations around mental health in dance, and her ever-changing definition of strength.

Tell me about your relationship to dance right now?

[Dance] means everything to me, but [dance] is complicated for me right now. I ruptured my achilles on August 1st, then had surgery on August 3rd and it has taken me a full year to recover, and I'm not the type of person to take time off from my work. I've taken this time to really focus on myself. I've learned to do things my way.

I grew up not feeling good enough, thinking no one would ever love me enough to be adopted, and then I literally chose an art form that fosters the same sort of you're not good enough [environment]. I constantly talk to my director and other people [in the industry] about how important starting conversation around mental health is in dance classes. Mental health in dance is so important, and absolutely not spoken about enough.

"Even beyond dance, mental health should be discussed no matter what career you're in."

Why do you think so many dancers are so bad at speaking about their mental health?

The dance environment makes [dancers] not feel comfortable with talking about their mental health. That's why I try to teach positivity into dance. When I teach, I tell [my students] to look into the palm of their hands [when they're dancing] and tell themselves that they are beautiful. Even beyond dance, mental health should be discussed no matter what career you're in.

Why did you choose dance as a means to express yourself?

When I was in Sierra Leone, I found a magazine with a ballerina on the cover. [The ballerina] just looked so happy. I hadn't felt that happiness like that yet in my life, so I gravitated towards that image because I wanted to achieve that happiness so badly.

Dance is my everything. Dance is the best way for me to put things into perspective, It's my language. I love classical ballet. I get to the Princess Aurora, but insert my personality. Next though, I want to do something completely different. I want to be a human rights lawyer or a humanitarian. I want to give back to people, and use my voice. I want to use my platform as much as I can to help as many people as I can.

"I don't think you can ever truly feel successful unless you're happy with yourself."

How has your storytelling changed as you've grown into yourself?

Since I was in the orphanage, I've been the person standing up for other kids. I am also lucky to have had parents that [have always] taught me the importance of showing up for the people you believe in.

I [recently] went away for a month and really worked on myself. I go to therapy, and read a lot, and focus on being really present. There is so much negative energy out there, and a lot of people use that negative energy to fuel what they want to accomplish. But for me, I just want to be happy, and use my happiness and positive energy as much as possible.

There's definitely more to my story than what people talk about. When I'm performing or speaking, I only have a certain amount of time to express myself. I think people see and hear my story as a whole, but can't really understand most aspects of it or see just how important adoption is. I'm hoping in my [forthcoming] movie, people will finally see more of my story.

What's the most challenging part of being an artist?

[My emotions] are so fresh sometimes, it makes it so hard to tell my story. And when I work with children who have [similarly] experienced horrible things, it brings up my own feelings and I wish I was better at separating my emotions from my work.

How has your definition of strength changed since you've grown into yourself?

I don't feel that successful. I am doing everything the way I want to do it, and I feel very lucky about it. I don't think you can ever truly feel successful unless you're happy with yourself. I think success [and strength] comes from learning yourself, and self-reflecting.

I've changed in how I'm not as shy as I used to be. I put on less of a front. I used to be scared of someone noticing my vitiligo and I'd become uncomfortable when I watched someone notice it for the first time. But now I'm at peace with myself, and I feel the most free [and strong] when I'm dancing.

My goal in life is to open up a school in Sierra Leone. I want it to be an arts school. The arts saved my family, and are so crucial in helping people in find themselves and that's what I really care about.

Photography: Jasper Soloff
Set Design/Art Direction: Mi Leggett
Makeup: Vika Yourman
Styling: Willyum Beck
Fashion: Official Rebrand and Allesandro Trincone
Assistant: Chloe Polikoff

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