04.05.138:45 PM ET

From Civil War to Harlem Dance Theater: Michaela DePrince’s Journey

She survived the horrors of war-torn Sierra Leone, an orphanage and ancient superstitions. Now the ballerina is realizing an impossible dream.

Late in the afternoon at Friday’s Women in the World conference, ballerina Michaela DePrince glided effortlessly across the stage at Lincoln Center in a performance inspired by the against-all-odds story of her life.

“I think when I dance I let people see who I really am,” the 18-year-old DePrince told panel moderator Juju Chang. “I can be really shy so when people first meet me they might think I’m mean, because my face is so concentrated, but I’m not!” she said, prompting laughter from the audience.

For a second, DePrince sounded and looked like an ordinary teenager, smiling and sitting next to her mother on stage. But this is no ordinary young woman.

Ballerina Michaela DePrince survived war and ancient superstitions to realize a dream. By Lizzie Crocker.

Born Mabinty Bangura in 1995 in the midst of Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, she was orphaned at age 3, her father murdered by rebel soldiers and her mother felled by starvation. Her uncle took her to an orphanage with 27 other children, where she was ostracized for her “spots” on her chest and neck—a skin condition called vitiligo that led the women at the orphanage to believe she was cursed.

“They called me ‘the devil’s child.’ I would always get the last serving of food, the last choice of toys and clothes,” she said.

Now, she’s the youngest member of the renowned Dance Theater of Harlem in New York—a dream she’s held onto since she was 4, when she found and fell in love with a picture of a ballerina torn from a magazine. She kept it in her underwear and showed no one but her only friend, No. 26 at the orphanage, who is now her sister, Mia.

The two were adopted by Elaine DePrince and her husband, who brought the girls back to their home in New Jersey. On her first night in her new home, Michaela ransacked her mother’s luggage before standing on her tippy toes and putting her hands above her head. She was looking for her ballet shoes.

“She thought all American women danced on their toes,” her mother said, recalling the moment when Michaela ran from her room to show her new mother the picture she had brought from Africa.

Michaela and Mia, an accomplished musician, are two of nine children adopted by the DePrinces, but they know they’re among the lucky ones. Today, there are more than 150 million gifted orphans around the world who may not have the opportunity to make use of their talents and realize their dreams.

“My other daughter, Justina, who’s also in the audience today, has told me she’s a bit jealous of her sisters because she didn’t know what she wanted to be like they did,” said Elaine, who reassured her daughter she had plenty of time to figure it out. “But after last night’s wonderful conference and being here all day today, she turned to me and said, ‘Mom, I think I know what I want to be. I want to be a leader.’”