BalletMet company member Rachael Parini

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet

BalletMet Dancer Rachael Parini's Road from Company Life to College and Back

Many young dancers see the choice to attend college or pursue a career as clear-cut, but Rachael Parini's unusual course has proved that's not the case. At 32, her career has been full of restarts. But looking back, the BalletMet dancer wouldn't change a single thing about the winding path she's taken.

Growing up in Snellville, Georgia, Parini says her parents insisted that pursuing ballet was contingent on doing well in school. Though she took AP classes and was named a National Merit Scholar, for her senior year Parini attended The Rock School for Dance Education and spent her weekends auditioning in New York City. But at the end of the year she was left without a contract, and fell back on her plan B: attending Florida State University.


Rachael Parini, wearing a white tutu, does a large split sissone with her legs in second, her left leg higher than her right to create a diagonal. She crosses her left arm in front of her torso and lifts her right arm up  to the side past her shoulder.

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet

By her second semester, it was clear that Parini's heart wasn't in school. Realizing that she missed ballet, she made the type of bold decision that has since characterized her career. She returned to The Rock, and after a year of intense training was offered a spot with American Repertory Ballet. "ARB was small enough that I was given the chance to jump straight into soloist roles," says Parini. After two blissful years, a company shake-up led her to Nashville Ballet's second company, where she spent a season struggling with an injury and a growing sense of disillusionment. "It made me realize how short a ballet career is," she says. "I decided to quit for good."

Wearing a white dance dress, pink tights and pointe shoes, Rachael Parini does a first arabesque on her right leg and looks out to the audience. Two dancers in flower costumes are behind her and face each other in arabesque.

Parini as Clara in Ballet Met's Nutcracker

Kristie Latham, Courtesy BalletMet

Parini returned to FSU and threw herself into her studies. Though she continued to take class and teach, ballet took a definite backseat. She declared a major in political science, with minors in international affairs and Italian. "It was so nice to have my passion for learning rekindled," says Parini. With the newfound goal of becoming a foreign service officer, Parini landed a summer internship at the Department of Homeland Security. "I was living in Washington, DC, doing data analytics and working next to agents who were doing investigations all over the world," she says. "I never thought I'd be in that position."

But as Parini neared graduation, she was bitten by the "ballet bug" again while dancing Sugarplum for a local Nutcracker. Though she'd already committed to a summer immersion program in Italy, she changed course. "I decided I would audition one more time, before I left it all behind me." Parini was offered a traineeship with The Washington Ballet, spent her summer in accelerated college courses in order to graduate early and says that she never looked back.

During the coronavirus shutdown, Parini has focused her attention on creating @chocolateandtulle, an Instagram account aimed at providing a sense of community for dancers of color.

Though she was 25 and had a BA, Parini started at the bottom of TWB's ladder. "It was humbling," she says. "But I was on cloud nine just to be dancing again." After three years, Parini was offered an apprenticeship at BalletMet. "It was a lateral move, but I was so drawn to [artistic director] Edwaard Liang's style and intensity, and I made the jump." And nearly five years later, she couldn't be more grateful. Moving to Columbus, Ohio, felt like fate; during her first day in the city, Parini bumped into a man in her apartment building who later became her husband.

At BalletMet, Parini's career has taken off. She's shone in a wide range of ballets, from Liang's Giselle (dancing the role of Moyna) to Val Caniparoli's Lambarena to George Balanchine's Serenade, Square Dance and "Rubies." When thinking about life after performing, Parini no longer feels the passion for government that was kindled in college. "I don't want to step away from art again," she says. But Parini's unconventional path has given her an invaluable sense of resilience and open-mindedness. "It requires a lot of humility and a little bit of fearlessness to start over so many times," she reflects. "Once I saw that ballet isn't the be-all and end-all, I realized that there were a million different things I could be doing. We do ourselves a disservice by only seeing ourselves in one way."

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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