Michaela DePrince (Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Imagine opening your email and seeing Beyoncé’s name in your inbox. That’s what happened to ballerina Michaela DePrince last year. After laughing off the email and sending it to her publicist, the next thing she knew, she was on set in New Orleans, choreographing the music video for “Freedom” on Queen Bey’s epic opus, Lemonade.

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“Both Mom and Dad taught [my sisters and I] to be strong, self-reliant women—feminists of the right type,” Michaela told Entertainment Tonight. “So I could not have been happier to participate in [Beyoncé’s project].”

CATEGORY: Arts & Culture
AGE: 22
HOMETOWN: Philadelphia
EDUCATION: Rock School for Dance Education and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre
SOCIAL MEDIA: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, website

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“Freedom” quite possibly is the perfect song to represent Michaela. Through ballet, she found an outlet to express herself at a very young age after experiencing tragedy. She was born in war-torn Sierra Leone in 1995. Both of her parents died by the time she was 3 years old, and she lived in an orphanage, where she was abused and taunted because she had vitiligo. Shortly after, she was adopted by a Jewish couple out of Cherry Hill, N.J., and was taken to the United States, where she soon took up ballet.

Dance has taken Michaela from New York to Johannesburg to Amsterdam in the last several years. She graduated from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre in 2012. At 18, she became the youngest principal dancer at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. In August 2014, she joined the Dutch National Ballet’s main company. Later that year, she released her memoir, Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina.

Like many ballet dancers of color, though, Michaela says she has faced racism within the industry. At 8, she was told she couldn’t perform in The Nutcracker because “America’s not ready for a black ballerina.”

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Now she’s using every opportunity she gets to pay it forward for younger ballerinas, and one day hopes to start a school of the arts in Sierra Leone.

“I not only hope to inspire the next generation of ballerinas, I want to reach out to young people who are facing adversity in their lives,” she said. “I speak publicly about my own life, dreams and struggles so that children can hear that it is possible to overcome their own difficulties.”