Rachel Oneika Phillips: Dance belongs to me

“My father says faithfully that I danced before I could walk,” Rachel Oneika Phillips says. “I believe it! I’ve come to believe this dream and drive of performing was woven into my bones as I grew in my mother. Dance was in me before I was ever interested in it.”

It was her father’s insistence and her tenaciousness that got her into the National School of Dance in Guyana at four years old, when the starting age at the time was five. Even that small, Rachel appreciated the rigour and structure of the school, classes were arranged by age group and younger ones could observe the older students in class. This was immeasurable, she says, picking your favourite and striving to be like him or her. She recalls that there were Cubans among the instructors. One woman in particular was statuesque and lithe and she kept her nails long with fire truck red nail polish. “She would brush those nails along my tummy and insist in her thick Cuban accent, ‘Up! Up! Up!’ Can you imagine such a thing being so pivotal in laying a foundation for excellence and drive? Indeed it was.”

Dance for her is visceral. “My dreams are always expanding and evolving. I don’t just want to be a star, I want to achieve greatness and influence generations through my artistry. If God and my own mind let me, I want to be iconic, great at whatever I put my mind to. That’s big. But if I become afraid to express it how will I ever believe it? So I say it!” Rachel hopes to go as far as her tenacity will take her; not only in dance but theatre, choreography, production, direction, management. For her it is entrepreneurship, ownership, and leadership.

“The wonderful thing about setting goals is the journey toward achieving them. It is the journey that clarifies if I’m headed in the right direction or if I need to do some modifying. I can’t be stubborn about it. Part of my meditation and life intention is to be pliable and malleable without being duped by others or self. This takes practice. Trust me,” she says.

Believe it or not but Rachel draws inspiration from Olympians. “They are my truest unabashed source of soul stirring fortitude. Watching the games was a kind of tradition I kept with my father and there is always phenomenal accomplishment at the Olympics: discipline, training, dedication, and excellence. An immense amount of time well spent training for one race, one dive, and one routine. It never ceases to amaze me” she says. And it is not just the winners but all the players. “They push the limits of themselves and go beyond their best. This always lights a nuclear reaction in me that I want to apply to my own craft, my own dreams, my own goals.”

Rachel Oneika Phillips
Rachel Oneika Phillips

There are others; artists, athletes, writers and other creative figures who illuminate great commitment, determination, persistence and longevity that she admires. In the past few years she has had the opportunity to work closely with very prestigious and highly awarded directors, choreographers and composers from the Broadway and pop culture scene. This has had a profound effect on her. “When you stand close to someone who is truly in the eye of their purpose and who find great value there – it is intoxicating. It certainly is intimidating but recognising your own ambition in them is thrilling.” Some of those names include Bill T. Jones (Fela!), Jeanine Tesori (Violet), and Lauryn Hill. The list of people who are simply inspiring but she has not got the chance to work with yet is an extensive one, some of the names are Greg Louganis (Olympic diver), Paulo Coehlo (writer), Tina Turner and El Greco (the painter) – these for her are people who very specifically found their purpose and pursued their own greatness. “This is what I want to do – find my own greatness, the thing that is only mine, and live my purpose in that.”

Her job at present is dance and theatre. If she is not doing that then she is off the clock.

In mid-June 2013, Rachel completed the historic run of Fela! (inspired by the life and music of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti) after having joined the Broadway cast in April 2010 – a dream come true for her. She served as a swing and as the understudy to the show’s two female lead roles: “Sandra” played by Saycon Sengbloh and “Funmilayo” played by Lillias White, and later by R&B icon, Patti La Belle. As a swing, Rachel had the responsibility of perfecting all female roles so as to be able to step into one at a moment’s notice.

As part of its historical legacy, the Tony-Award winning show travelled from Broadway to Lagos, Nigeria – a venture never undertaken by any Broadway show. It was met with resounding success and was welcomed home at both the New Africa Shrine (run by Fela’s children Femi and Yeni Kuti) and the EKO Expo Centre.

The show completed two successful tours – a 2011/2012 international and national run on prestigious stages in Amsterdam and London. And a second US national tour through June of 2013. On this second national tour Rachel served as Assistant Dance Captain, understudy to the two female lead roles and played a featured dancer role (“Queen Najite”). Venues included Washington DC, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Toronto.

Rachel Oneika Phillips with cast members of Fela!
Rachel Oneika Phillips with cast members of Fela!
Rachel Oneika Phillips in West Side Story
Rachel Oneika Phillips in West Side Story

Prior to Fela! she toured and played numerous prestigious international stages with the 50thAnniversary International Tour of Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, directed by Joey McKneely. This was her catapult to the international spotlight, where after two tours in the ensemble (playing “Consuelo”) she attained the lead role of “Anita”, known historically to be played by legends Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno and Debbie Allen.

In this role, Rachel and the London Sadler’s Wells Theatre cast of West Side Story were nominated for an Olivier Award for “Best Musical Revival” and won the 2009 Theatregoer’s Choice Award in the same category. Rachel played the role in numerous prestigious theatres all over the globe to rave reviews.

As a dancer, Rachel’s primary dance performance company was Abdel Salaam’s acclaimed Forces of Nature Dance Theatre of New York, where she toured nationally and internationally as a featured company member, soloist and rehearsal director. She served as assistant choreographer to Abdel Salaam on Busch Gardens’ Katonga, an award winning show created by the producer of Broadway’s The Lion King especially for the Busch Gardens.

She has performed the professional works of Tony Award winner George Faison, Philadanco, Obediah Wright, and Stephen Koplowitz Dance, among others. She has also worked with numerous international artists such as Seun Kuti, Sean Paul, Nelly, Pharell, Rihanna, Collie Buddz and Alison Hinds. Most recently she served as co-choreographer for Lauryn Hill’s background vocalists in preparation for the camp’s ongoing world tour and Hill’s return to the music scene.

Rachel was born in Georgetown, Guyana and moved with her family to Grenada at around age seven.

She still has vivid memories of Guyana. The children of the Prashad Nagar and Bel Air neighbourhoods she grew up in were some of her very first friends and still are today. “We wandered those small neighbourhoods – walking, skating, biking, talking like we were philosophers the way small children do!” Rachel said she was a climber so she was always challenging her guy friends especially to climb trees.

The adventure of moving from Guyana to Grenada was to her daunting at first. “I would have to repeat class 3 because of the point in the school year we made the move. I also didn’t have my cousins and old friends…not to mention my incredible dance school… .” But recognising that she needed dance in her life, “my mother enrolled me in a new dance school – the Grenada Dance Workshop,” she recalls. Almost every girl in that company, she says, has had an immense impact on her life becoming lifelong friends and supporters.

She lived in Grenada through A-levels after which her family left for Eritrea, East Africa where her father’s job with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation took him.

When Rachel was growing up, no member of her immediate family was involved in the arts professionally but they loved the arts regardless. Her mother danced when she was younger though Rachel doubts she took to it the way she did.

However, her mother has a great ear for opera; her father a deep love for jazz, her older sister is very creative and makes incredibly beautiful scrapbooks and cards. Rachel’s younger sister has a beautiful voice and loves to sing… “But dance – dance is mine,” she says with pride. “A gamut of music resounded through the house from Stevie Wonder to Dolly Parton, calypso to classical. I definitely feel that while it was an anomaly in my home, dance has a sister and she is music. Music erupted the dancer in me.”

Rachel took to dance and performing like a sea turtle to the ocean. “I came to believe I could go far. There was no one particular moment but a series of connecting steps and phases of accomplishing certain goals and graduating to the next level.”

She has a pattern – to see and experience a brilliant example, someone who is just stunning in their craft. This lends a light to her own path and serves as an illumination of where she wants to go, who she wants to be and what she wants to do. “With that motivation I get on my grind, putting in dexterous work so I am constantly improving and pushing myself to a higher level. It’s a constant churning of courage, determination and persistence…and a whole lot of work that feels good to execute and be a part of.”

Rachel currently lives in New York where she participates in many projects in the performing arts.

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