This book tells the extraordinary story of how Mabinty Bangura from Sierra Leone survived war, famine, cruelty and prejudice to end up dancing with Dutch National Ballet under the name Michaela DePrince.

Born in Sierra Leone, DePrince saw and suffered things that no-one, let alone a child, should experience, from the brutality and misogyny of her own uncle who virtually sold her, to witnessing the murder and mutilation of a beloved school teacher. It is sometimes hard to believe that she really remembers all the conversations that she records (she was so very young at the time), but there is an immediacy about her account that is gripping.

The pages of an old copy of Dance Magazine blowing around among the rubbish gave her an early chance encounter with an image of ballet, but it was only when she and all the other little girls in an orphanage were adopted by families in the US that she was able to discover what ballet is and to pursue her vocation.

DePrince featured in Bess Kargman’s documentary film First Position about the Youth America Grand Prix competition, and I should certainly have liked to read in more depth about her dance training, but this book is not only about the place of ballet in her life. She uses the memoir to show us through her own eyes what racism means, whether it is overt, unthinking, or institutional, while also touching on difficult questions regarding the ethics and practicalities of international adoption. DePrince’s mother and co-author, Elaine DePrince, is clearly a remarkable woman: she adopted several children from a war zone, who must all have been more or less traumatised, and helped them to grow into mature young women. Nonetheless, (Michaela) DePrince also fully acknowledges the love and care than her birth parents gave her until their deaths and values her own heritage.

Chance has played a major part in DePrince’s life; she might so easily have died in childhood, and the fact that against all the odds she came across a picture of dancer Magali Messac and then happened to be adopted by parents who enabled her to follow her vocation seems little short of miraculous. Despite its catchy title this book is not only for dance fans. Its 250 pages are compelling (I read it in a single sitting), and I would recommend it to any young teenager because it illustrates our capacity as human beings to survive and overcome death and destruction.

Maggie Watson

3rd May 2015

Hope in a Ballet Shoe: orphaned by war, saved by ballet, by Michaela and Elaine DePrince. Faber & Faber, 2015

You can find more information and purchase this book here