A Poppy Among Daffodils:
Michaela and Elaine DePrince Discuss
Taking Flight

by the Brightly Editors

Photo credit: Michael Lionstar

The DePrince family is remarkable by pretty much anyone’s standards. At 21, Michaela has become an international ballet star; her appearance in the 2011 documentary “First Position” challenged the dance world to question its perceptions of the art form. Meanwhile, her mother Elaine is the author of the groundbreaking 1997 memoir Cry Bloody Murder, which recounted the DePrinces’ devastating losses to HIV/AIDS due to tainted blood transfusions.

Adopted in Sierra Leone along with sister Mia following the events of their mother’s book, Michaela has now stepped into her own literary spotlight. In the conversation below, she and Elaine share the touching origin story of their co-authored book Taking Flight, which is currently being groomed for the silver screen by MGM.

MICHAELA: I spent my high school years dancing ballet six to ten hours each day and then studying late into the nights. Though I loved school, especially math classes, I hated having to write hundreds of 5-paragraph essays. When I graduated and embarked on a career as a professional ballet dancer at seventeen, I looked forward to putting all of that writing behind me.

ELAINE: When Adriana Dominguez from Full Circle Literary called to discuss my 784-word picture book about Michaela, I was on cloud nine. Then Adriana said, “… But I’d like you to work with Michaela to turn this story into a 50-thousand-word young adult memoir.” I nearly fell out of my chair! Not only did Michaela hate writing, but also how would I gather enough information from her memory to fill 200-plus pages? Then I remembered a marble composition book I had tucked away in my desk drawer many years ago.

Still listening to Adriana, I reached into the drawer and dug under the pile of tissues, dead batteries, old datebooks, index cards and leaky pens. There at the bottom was the composition book. I breathed a sigh of relief and told her, “Okay, I think we can do that.”

MICHAELA: I had come home from a long, hard dance rehearsal, and my mother announced: “A literary agent called and asked if you would be willing to write a memoir, with my help.”

“Mama!” I wailed. “I would hate it! I never want to write again.” My mother said, “Let’s sit down and talk about it.”

I didn’t want to talk about it, but Mama had fettuccine ready for me, coated in her homemade butter-garlic sauce. I was never one to resist Italian food, so I sat down and ate while my mother convinced me how important this memoir could be to little black dancers who dreamed of becoming ballerinas.

This touched off a spark in me. Attending a ballet for the first time at nearly five years old, I remember turning to my mother and whispering in her ear, “Mama, where are the black ballerinas?” The absence of color among the dancers upset me. I knew even then I had to do something to change the status quo.

On the day my mother asked me to write the memoir with her, I was on the threshold of becoming a professional ballet dancer. A dozen years had passed since I’d asked Mama that question, but black ballerinas were still a rarity. I felt like a lone poppy among a field of daffodils. If I worked on this book, I might make a difference and inspire more poppies to sprout on the ballet stages of the world.

ELAINE: Long ago when Michaela asked me, “Where are the black ballerinas?” I knew it wouldn’t be enough to raise her to become a strong woman — I needed to raise her to become a strong black woman. This absence of black ballerinas indicated to me that in her lifetime Michaela would face challenges I had never experienced. Forever afterward, I dedicated my life to inspiring integrity, strength, and courage in my daughters. I also taught them to reach out to others. So, on that evening the literary agent called, it was no surprise that the way to Michaela’s heart was through the little girls she hoped to inspire.

Michaela was just about to agree to work on the memoir when she suddenly exclaimed, “But Mama, I can hardly remember my early childhood!” That’s when I hurried to my office and returned with the marble composition book.

Michaela DePrince, Elaine DePrince, and Mia

MICHAELA: Mama handed me an old familiar notebook. On the cover she had once written Kermit the Frog’s Interview Book. I laughed, remembering those earliest months after my adoption and how my mother had pretended to be Kermit the Roving Reporter as she interviewed my sister Mia and me about our childhood in Africa.

Mama said, “You can use this to remember your earlier years, and you can use your own journals to recall events from your life in America.” I had been an avid journaler when I was younger, so I retrieved those books from under my mattress and dumped them onto the kitchen table. Over the next couple of weeks, Mama and I pored over all these notebook and journal pages, glad we hadn’t lost them.

One evening while reading through one of my mother’s interviews of me, I asked, “Did you do this in case you wanted to write a book?” Mama told me it had never occurred to her — she’d interviewed us to help us heal, as well as to preserve our memories for the future so we could share them someday with our own children.

Her answer brought tears to my eyes. She had been so thoughtful to give us such a gift. Through the interview process she’d enabled us to release the pent-up demons that haunted our souls and put them behind us. In truth, after I shared the horrors of my early childhood with my mother, I had let them go. Without the burden of those memories, I was able to become a happy normal girl, more concerned about the present and future than the dark, distant past.

ELAINE: Michaela and I took much of what we included in Taking Flight from those interviews and journals. Knowing how busy she was, I gathered her additional memories about ballet, friends, teachers, competitions, dreams, philosophies and feelings in the form of snippets. These were like pieces of a large unfinished jigsaw puzzle. She would email them to me, and I’d organize them until the puzzle was completed.

But Michaela is Mende by tribe, so oral tradition is in her blood; almost daily she would telephone from the Netherlands, where she danced with the Dutch National Ballet. I typed as she shared her thoughts, ever grateful for the apps that provide free long-distance telephone service.

One of my greatest pleasures while listening to Michaela or disentangling her thoughts from her emails was learning what a fine young adult she was becoming. Her thoughts could easily have been filled with self-centered boasts, but they weren’t. I was proud to learn of her deep concern for the women and children of the world, who suffered from great adversity.

Michaela DePrince, Elaine DePrince, and Mia

MICHAELA: Though I was responsible for the content of my memoirs, my mother organized and polished Taking Flight, giving it a beautiful literary quality. Perhaps because I am my mother’s daughter — and I am very much like her in many ways — she has a knack for writing in my voice. When she finished, I was surprised to hear my own voice speak out from the pages of the manuscript.

Ultimately the agonizing ordeal I had so dreaded turned out to be a fun bonding experience. I’d left for Europe at eighteen with little insight into my mother’s heart and soul, and as a teenager I was certain she didn’t understand me at all. However, by working together on this book I learned just how much Mama really did understand about me. Best of all, I grew to understand and appreciate my mother — not only for what she’s done for me, but for the fine human being she is as well.

I have recently begun my college studies part-time, fitting them into the few spare moments I have as a full-time dancer. Despite all my past complaints about writing, my first course is a writing class. I’m determined to not only become like my mother, but write like her as well.

Michaela DePrince graduated from the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school in New York, and is a dancer with the Dutch National Ballet. She travels between Amsterdam and Atlanta, where she lives with her family.

Elaine DePrince is Michaela’s adoptive mother and co-author. Elaine lives in Atlanta with her husband and five youngest girls.