I am excited to meet Michaela de Prince. There is no point in pretending to be cool or rationalizing the fact that I am several years her senior. As a dance fan, I have literally watched this girl grow up. A star of the 2011 documentary First Position, which chronicled the ballet careers of six up-and-coming stars, de Prince stood out for more reasons than one. Her talents and dedication were unprecedented and, at 16, she was already wowing audiences with her technical abilities. But most impressively she had an incredible story of personal perseverance. An orphan from Sierra Leone, she and her sister were adopted by an American couple who brought them back to the States and enrolled Michaela in dance, which became her salvation. She was outcast in her native community because she has vitiligo, a skin condition which is purely cosmetic but is also extremely visible on darker complexions.
When I see her in person at 22, the petite ballerina's gentle nature warms the room. She's as poised and graceful as you would expect her to be, but the dynamic qualities which characterize her dancing are more subtle than sizable in her off-duty life. In a bright blue dress and platform sandals, she looks like your ordinary Gen-Z'er, but when she begins talking about her life in Amsterdam, where she lives now while she is a soloist at the Dutch National Ballet, it is clear that she's anything but normal.
When I ask her to describe a typical day for her, she says, "Every single day I have class at 10, unless it’s a show day, and we work until 6, with a 45-minute lunch break. We’re learning different reps, sometimes we’re just focusing on the same thing trying to perfect it until we’re on stage, and then once we’re on stage, we’re working on a different rep. You wanna be able to refine your steps, to be able to refine every, like, the way you move your foot, the way you move your body, the way you like, use your presence on stage while rehearsing, while getting corrections, while feeling bad about yourself. But also trying to make yourself feel good. It’s like, it’s a whole cycle, but at the end of the day, when you’re performing you realize it’s all worth it. That’s the great thing."
In other words, she's dancing all day every day. Most young women Michaela's age are students worrying about term papers and internships, but de Prince has had a career since she was a teenager. She's now a soloist at the Dutch National Ballet, one rank below principal, which is the most prestigious title in ballet. "I’m one of the youngest in the company," she tells me. "I think the oldest is about 36, maybe to 38. We have more women then men; of course we need the women for the Corps de ballet."
The soloist just scored another job position, though, as the face of Jockey's new #showem campaign, which is actually why we are meeting today.
Ballet has never been a particularly lucrative career path and dancers often find themselves with side jobs in order to supplement their lifestyles. More recently, it has become popular for dancers to serve as models and spokespeople. Black ballerina Misty Copeland is famous for pioneering this path. Not far behind is de Prince, who is a few years her junior but just as savvy. She recognizes this extension of her career but she is not interested in lending her name or face to just any old project. "Jockey approached me and once I saw their video of Chris Van Etten, I just knew right away that this would not only give me a chance to express what I want to do— how to be a role model, how to give people hope — but also the fact that I knew that this was an amazing organization, very raw, very real. And I was just super excited to work with them after seeing that amazing campaign that they did last year."
De Prince lived up to her ethos when I asked her to get real about discrimination and the challenges of being a Black woman in the world of ballet, particularly at her current company. "Unfortunately, I’m the only Black female dancer. We do have a Brazilian male dancer there [as well], but I’m trying to change that."
This is not a surprising statistic, since I could probably name the Black dancers at de Prince's level on less than two hands. "I’m just really trying to tell more Black dancers, more black ballerinas to come to the Dutch National, to come to Europe, to do ballet. When I first started auditioning for ballet companies who were telling me to audition for Alvin Ailey and I was like, 'Why?' You wouldn’t say that to a white person to audition at Alvin Ailey. I think for me, what I truly believe in is the fact that it doesn’t matter what color you are, if you love to dance, dance. If you're able to move somebody, if you're able to change somebody’s life by one performance to inspire them, you don’t have to inspire them to start ballet [but] you can inspire them to believe in something beautiful. That’s the main goal."
What's worse is that, because of the lack of diversity, de Prince has faced several logistical problems that white dancers do not face. For example, tights and shoes are not idealized for darker skin tones. "I’ve also been told, 'Why don’t you wear lighter makeup?' and I’m not gonna do that. I’ve also been wearing white tights for a long time and I stopped doing that. I’m wearing brown tights now at the Dutch National Ballet and I’m trying to change the way people see ballet. We just need to have more poppies in the field of daffodils. It wont be a distraction if we had more diversity in dance."
The Dutch National Ballet seems to have a serious stake in de Prince, and rightfully so as they have made her a specific dye for her pointe shoes so she will no longer have to use brown makeup. "Dutch National made me a specific blend of dye. But, yes, it's frustrating, it’s frustrating that it’s still a white, white world and I really wanna change that. I have that platform. [For dance] it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like."
(Photo: Randy Smith/BET)