Young dancer epitomizes triumph over tragedy

Michaela DePrince, 18, is the youngest company member at the Dance Theater of Harlem. Three years earlier, she won a scholarship to train at the American Ballet Theater.
CBS News

(CBS News) NEW YORK - Success is measured not just by what you achieve, but what you overcome. Few have overcome more or achieved more than the young woman you're about to meet.

At 18, Michaela DePrince is the youngest company member at the Dance Theater of Harlem.

When she was 3, Michaela DePrince lost her parents in Sierra Leone's civil war. CBS News

"I'm so honored to be here," she said. "I used to watch all the dancers from the dance theater of Harlem when i was younger and i wanted to be exactly like them.

Her success in professional dance isn't her most defining moment. For that, you have to look at how she got here.

Michaela was born in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. At the age of three, she lost both parents during the civil war. She recalled it was absolutely devastating when her father died.

"Once he was shot we had nothing," she said, "so my mom ended up giving all the food to me. And so she ended up starving to death and I ended up in an orphanage after that."

For months adoptive families passed her by because of her vitiligo -- a skin condition which causes light spots. Struggling, she found inspiration when she saw a magazine picture of a ballerina.

"She was in this beautiful tutu and she was on pointe," Michaela, said, "and she looked so happy to me at the time, it was perfect timing because i was going through so much and she gave me hope to keep going."

Michaela DePrince, who was adopted by American parents, was inspired to be a dancer from a picture of a ballerina in a magazine. CBS News

That hope was realized when at age four, Michaela was adopted by Americans Charlie and Elaine DePrince. And while the picture of the ballerina was lost, the inspiration wasn't. She's been dancing ever since.

"I knew that Michaela had what it takes when she was only four-years-old and she memorized the entire choreography of the Balanchine "Nutcrakcer,"" said Elaine DePrince.

At 15 she won a scholarship to train at the American Ballet Theater in New York.

"When I was younger, it was hard for me to get roles just because of my color," said Michaela. "But it's getting easier slowly. Even though it's 2013, you'd think this wouldn't be a problem."

It looks like she has come a long way. "Yeah I have come a long way," said Michaela. "But there's so much more that I need to do."

She'll start by taking the stage Wednesday night at New York's Lincoln Center, dancing the lead in an excerpt from Swan Lake -- a picture of grace under pressure.

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    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York City, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.