Many little girls grow up with a wind-up ballerina musical jewellery box, which inevitably leads to them starting ballet lessons (in those adorable pink leotards). Some progress to dancing on pointe, but only a select few make it to the stage. Umhlanga dancer Rachel Abrahams is one of those talented girls…and she couldn’t image life any other way.
It is in a fantastical world of magic, music and dreamy costumes that Umhlanga dancer Rachel Abrahams feels most at home. Effortlessly, she floats across the stage, light as a feather, elegant arms and poised, lean legs.
The fun-loving 29-year-old started ballet at age five, modern dance at eight and tap at ten. “Ballet was always the highlight of my day. I was very sporty growing up and continued with dance and sport until I was 14. Then I chose to fully concentrate on my dancing – ballet being my top priority.” Rachel studied ballet with Winsome Fuller, a legend in the industry who danced with the likes of Nureyev – one of the world’s greatest male ballet dancers. Disciplined and dedicated to perfecting the art of dance, Rachel got used to long days and busy schedules from an early age. “Most evenings I only got home around 8pm after ballet class and weekends always included KZN youth ballet and dance rehearsals.”
At age 12, she auditioned for a company called Siwela Sonke and although she was very young, she made it into the show. “That’s where I learnt contemporary and I went on to perform with them for years after that at arts festivals, gala events at the ICC and theatres. I used the money I earned form these performances to buy my pointe shoes and costumes and put it towards my future in dancing.”
Rachel’s breakthrough came in the first year after she finished school when she successfully auditioned and was accepted into the South African Ballet Theatre (Joburg Ballet now) Apprentice Programme. “That was the official start of my career performing in major ballet productions such as Coppelia, Giselle and Cinderella.”
While this was a dream come true, looking back, Rachel says she now realises how much she struggled in her first few years in the ballet company and dance world. “I was 17 and the pressure was indescribable. I can’t explain the amount of mental strength it takes to be in a company, be disciplined, believe in yourself and to make this a career. I was so determined to be part of this industry that I couldn’t see that I was actually struggling mentally.”
Finding balance between her career and her life has been a long-term learning curve and a lesson that has helped her survive and thrive in the tough industry. “It’s very hard as a ballet dancer to have a life outside of ballet, but it’s essential. I prioritise myself so that I can be the best dancer possible for my career. I learnt that the best way for me to have a long career is to work on a freelance basis and not be part of a company full time.” When she is not part of a ballet production in Johannesburg or Cape Town, you will find her on the rugby field dancing for the Sharks team and the Dolphins, on stage at corporate events or in a studio teaching and choreographing. “I’ve started spending more time in Durban lately as I love my city and want to help build the industry here. My incredible dance partner, Casey Swales, also lives here and we do a lot of work together.”
Another big lesson has been to look after her body. “Ballet, especially, is a visual art which relies on perfect lines and a part of that would be a perfect body. I am quite tall and certainly am lean naturally. Out of ballet season or contract I don’t put pressure on myself. My body is my temple and I really mean that. During seasons, I dance so much it would be impossible for my body not to be in its best shape. If I’m not in good shape, I will get injured.”
To keep her body strong and dance ready, Rachel is very particular about how she fuels herself. “I’m vegetarian and grow my own vegetables and herbs. I eat extremely well – and a lot – and I am proud to say that I check everything before I eat it. I want to know what I’m putting into my body. Normally, if anything has more than five ingredients in it, it’s processed. Not to say I don’t enjoy a beautiful, big breakfast on a Sunday with the works, or that I don’t love chocolate as much as the next person. I also love bread and pasta. I just exercise in moderation (most of the time).”
While the arts (and the rest of the world) are in hibernation during lockdown, Rachel is keeping active and busy, gardening with her boyfriend and exercising in her home with her faithful shadow, Rocco, the Staffordshire Bullterrier always next to her. “The arts will thrive again and my shows will be put back on. I can’t wait! In the meantime, I’m creating, staying fit and enjoying exploring my free dance spirit.”
Details: Instagram: @ballerinarach