Nineteen-year-old Zarina Dhillon might be young with big dreams, but she already knows that the path to success includes perseverance and hard work. As one of the few South Asian ballerinas in the world today, she shared her journey to becoming a professional dancer. Intensive training through programs at the American Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance (Chicago), and the Washington Ballet Theatre have prepared her for furthering her career. She has had several stage performances with the Antelope Valley Ballet in the following shows: The Nutcracker, Giselle, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Swan Lake, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter and the Wolf, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Romeo and Juliet, Firebird, and Peter Pan. In addition to dancing, Zarina is also a full-time college student in Santa Barbara, California.
I would tell anyone looking to pursue dance that it doesn’t matter when you start, how you look, or what your circumstances are. All of that washes away once you begin doing something you love.Zarina Dhillon
J’AIPUR: Did you always know you wanted to be a ballerina? Describe your creative journey from when you started dancing up until now.
ZD: Ever since I started, I always knew that dance was going to be something very special to me. I’m a relatively quiet person, so being able to express myself without words is something I’m very grateful for. From a creative standpoint, I would say that I started out in a standard way. At the beginning of your training you can’t really express much until you grasp the basics. So, I’ve really enjoyed seeing how I have been able to branch out and be more adventurous in expressing myself using one of the strictest dance styles.
J’AIPUR: What would you say has been one of the highlights of your ballet career thus far?
ZD: I’m very grateful for any opportunity where I get to perform, no matter how small. But, for me, highlights are less about the ‘major roles’ and more about the little obstacles I’ve learned how to overcome. Whenever a correction clicks or something finally becomes a little easier to me, I use that feeling of success to drive myself towards the next goal.
J’AIPUR: Who have been some of your role models in the ballet world and what have you learned from them that you’ve applied in your own life?
ZD: I personally admire anyone who uses their platform to uplift others (in and outside of the ballet world). Some people that I’m able to look towards for inspiration would be: Desmond Richardson, Michaela DePrince, and Misty Copeland. I’ve learned from them to just keep pushing, and that all of the hard work will pay off. They’ve shown me that being different can be a beautiful thing. Although these are some well-known individuals, most of the constant support I get is actually from the people around me, such as teachers, fellow students, and other professionals. They make me remember that everything I’m doing is to improve myself. It’s not about what other people are doing; it’s seeing if I can leave the studio feeling like I’m better than when I came in. All of this can be applied to basically every other aspect of my life.
J’AIPUR: What is your advice to other aspiring ballerinas?
ZD: I would tell anyone looking to pursue dance that it doesn’t matter when you start, how you look, or what your circumstances are. All of that washes away once you begin doing something you love.
J’AIPUR: During the challenging times of being a ballerina, what do you tell yourself to not give up?
ZD: I try to stop overthinking everything in class and focus on the things that I can change. I try to remind myself that although this is all for just a couple of moments on stage, the growth is part of the enjoyment. Whenever I look back on all the hard times, I realize that seeing myself push through and continue feels better than giving up ever would.
J’AIPUR: What sort of obstacles have you had to overcome in your career?
ZD: Not looking like a traditional ballerina has been something that I’m still working on overcoming. Being able to see so many wonderfully diverse body types and races begin to emerge in the dance world is helping me see that maybe I can do it too.
J’AIPUR: What have you learned about yourself through ballet?
ZD: I’ve learned that I don’t give up very easily, and that I actually love the process of overcoming challenges. I’ve also learned that I’m quite a perfectionist, which is both a good and bad thing in this field.
J’AIPUR: You are one of the few South Asian ballerinas. How do you think the ballet world can increase its diversity?
ZD: I am often the darkest person in a class, which is saying a lot considering I’m actually fairly light. Most people won’t even notice that until you point it out, and then they proceed to tell you that it’s “not a big deal.” Considering there are still companies who participate in ‘black face’, I would say it’s a pretty big deal. I think by giving POC more chances in the ballet world, companies will begin to see all that we are able to offer. People need to realize that the “perfect” company, where every dancer looks identical, needs to be a thing of the past.
J’AIPUR: Why did you choose ballet over other dance genres?
ZD: Ballet was actually never my favorite, and I always considered it to be my weak point. Over the years, I started taking more and more classes as it is the foundation of all other styles. Eventually, I switched my focus to ballet because I love (and hate) that there’s always something you can improve on.
J’AIPUR: What are you most excited about in the upcoming year with respect to your career?
ZD: I’ve already grown so much this past year, so I’m just really excited to see myself improve, mentally and physically, as much as I can.
Interview by Rupi Sood // Follow more of Zarina’s creative journey on Instagram @zarinadhillon.
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