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Dancer Rachael Parini on Representation and Being on Our Billboard

Dancer Rachael Parini is featured on BalletMet’s 90-foot billboard along High Street in Downtown Columbus. Below, she shares her thoughts on being represented as a black ballet dancer.

by Rachael Parini

I only knew of a few brown ballerinas growing up, and only one, Toni Doctor Jenkins, danced with Atlanta Ballet, near my hometown of Snellville, Ga.

I knew because my parents took us to The Nutcracker, and I saw her onstage and in glimpses around AB’s studios (she would SMILE AT ME!) and in her playbill headshot.

And I lived for Toni Doctor Jenkins because, for a long time, she was the only example I had that maybe I could make it as a ballerina.

Before the internet, all I had were magazines and local ads; I rarely, if ever, “saw” myself in any of those. I feared standing out as a muscular black girl. I wondered if I’d ever “make it,” especially once I became aware of all the other ways I stood out.

I wish I could tell 15 year-old Rachael to just enjoy dancing. To smile. Because God is going to answer every prayer you’ve ever had, brave girl.

I’d hug anxious, awkward “Racie Mae” (my nickname) and tell her about the companIES she’ll dance for, that she’ll perform at The Kennedy Center, that she’ll teach in China!

I wish I could tell her that she’d get to perform ballets she only knew from famous pictures. I would lift her chin and say, “So WHAT if your hair won’t stay smooth no matter what you do. It’s beautiful when it’s ‘poofy!’” (And also, “Girl, one day you’ll discover Ecostyler and edge control, and life will CHANGE.”)

I wish I could tell her that soon, she’d have ballerina besties who look like her and have connections to many others—past, present and future—and she won’t feel so alone anymore.

Most importantly, I’d ask little “Scooter” Jones (another nickname) if she ever dreamed she’d be in a position to be everything Toni Doctor Jenkins was to her—and not just to people she knew. To little girls all over the place because she’s in the kind of ad she PRAYED for but never saw, growing up and searching for representation. (I’d like to think she’d say, “Yeah, I did dream it.”)

Seeing the billboard was overwhelming in the most incredible way, what it meant to me, my family—and what it could mean to other people. I will never forget seeing, or BEING, that picture.

Thank you to photographer Jennifer Zmuda. Thank you to BalletMet Artistic Director Edwaard Liang. Thank you, BalletMet.

We’re so proud of Rachael and so glad to have her, and other BalletMet dancers, representing us on billboards and newsstands around Columbus.