As part of our new “Becoming” series, acclaimed ballerina Michaela DePrince took a break from her performance tour with the Dutch National Ballet to speak to Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng about how she takes the center stage in life and in the dance world. 

How do you think people see you?

I have to be realistic. I think that many people see me as a role model, and perhaps as a heroine. Sometimes that’s a heavy burden to carry, and it would be so much easier to have people see me as just an ordinary nineteen-year-old who happens to be a ballet dancer. But as my mom says, “I never guaranteed that life would be easy.”  

What one thing would people not know about you from your physical appearance?  

I think people would never know how much I love Italian food, especially pasta, and I eat it whenever I can get it.

What makes you most beautiful?

I don’t know what makes me most beautiful, but I know what makes me feel most beautiful. I feel most beautiful when I’m being kind and considerate.

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What aspect of your personality or physique do you like least? 

I tend to be impatient, and I don’t like that aspect of my personality. I have to remind myself to chill. As for my physique, I would like to be tall and elegant, but at nineteen, I doubt I’ll grow, so I have to live with being five feet four inches tall.

How have you grown to find the beauty in your flaws?

When I was a little girl I hated my vitiligo, which makes me look spotted, but now people identify me by my spots; they are unique and I’m comfortable with them.

When did you first know you wanted to be a ballerina?

I’ve known that I’ve wanted to be a ballerina ever since I was four years old, and found that magazine with the picture of a ballerina at the orphanage.

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What has been your greatest challenge in the world of dance? 

My greatest challenge has been developing artistry and delicacy in classical ballet. I’ve always been an athlete. I was a champion swimmer as a child. I used to approach ballet as an athletic event, but not anymore. I’m finally getting it.

Your greatest joy?   

I feel my greatest joy every time I’m satisfied by a step, a combination, a variation. It can come in the studio or on the stage, but when it happens I’m joyful.

Can you think of one defining moment in your life that changed your thinking?

Yes, when I was nine-and-a-half years old Teddy, my favorite brother, died. He was only twenty-four at the time. He had hemophilia and contracted HIV from contaminated blood products when he was five years old. He lived life to the fullest, and his death made me realize that life is too precious to be wasted. November 13th is always a solemn day for me because it’s the anniversary of his death.

What are you most grateful for having in your life?

I am most grateful for my family. I’ve learned that family is unconditional and perpetual love.

What makes you smile widest?

Seeing the excitement on the faces of the little girls whose lives I have the privilege of touching.

What has been your proudest moment so far?

I believe that would be the day in 2013 I danced for the Women in the World Summit.

What do you think your purpose is?

I don’t know what my purpose in life is yet. I suppose I’ll figure it out eventually. I’ve been very blessed, so I do know that it will involve passing those blessings forward.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I would like to be the Ruby Bridges of ballet, and open the doors of this beautiful art form to girls of every race.

Becoming Michaela DePrince

What’s the best piece of advice you haven’t taken?

My father, who smoked when he was young, would say to me, “Never smoke a cigarette.  Once you smoke one, you will forever crave them.” When I was in high school I smoked because I wanted to fit in, and even though I’ve stopped, when I smell them, I feel a craving. I really should have taken my dad’s advice.

You can purchase Michaela’s memoir, Taking Flight, here.

Connect with Michaela on Facebook and Twitter.