First African American to Receive Double Major in Physics and Ballet Cast in Pioneer Theatre Company Production

28 February 2017 Published in News and Announcements

Sydney Duncan's life seems to attract unexpected twists. She embodies the unlikely combination of talented dancer and passionate scientist. Like so many college graduates, she set out for New York City, but amazingly, landed a job with a professional theatre in her alma mater's backyard. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Duncan began dance lessons at the age of three. Growing up, she was trained in classical ballet, voice, and saxophone. While maintaining an interest in sports like basketball, her heart was always in dance. For this reason, she chose to attend Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts. Regarding her choice to pursue training in classical ballet, Duncan says, “Ballet is one of the most beautiful ethereal things in this world to me. The feeling of creating something with your body made me feel so amazing inside. No matter what was going on in my world outside of the dance studio, I could drop whatever was on my mind or negative thought and express myself through dance. Cheesy, I know. And the music! Ballet has the best most heart wrenching music ever. There is something about music that has always driven me to express my deep love for it. Music is the reason I love ballet.”

From an early age, Duncan also had a passion for math, science and outer space. Attending a performing arts high school allowed Duncan to be herself and think creatively. It was there that Duncan fell in love with physics. Her physics teacher opened her eyes to the science world, which Duncan loved, especially the mysterious vastness of outer space. She finds astrophysics fascinating because it allows her to learn the tools needed in order to understand what is beyond what our eyes can see. During this time, she found an interest for kinematics, the study of motion. In school, she would learn a physics lesson about velocity or rotational accelerations and then apply it that night in ballet class. Using kinematics principles in ballet made her both a better physicist and a more self-aware dancer. In order to continue her combined passion of physics and dance beyond high school, her dad encouraged her to explore college programs that would allow her to do just that.

After high school, Duncan chose to attend the University of Utah because it allowed her to double major in ballet and physics. As a Research I university, the U allowed her to learn more about astrophysics and have the opportunity to do research in astronomy, alongside quality training in classical ballet. When asked how her majors intertwined, Duncan said, “Being a physics major made me think more critically about how I was evaluating each step. Studying kinematics made me understand and control my body much better than before. I think I'm a better dancer than before because of my knowledge of physics. I understand the science behind each movement. This includes rotational acceleration in turns, managing different types of velocities, gravity in your jumps and where to place you weight in is all a big formula of canceling out drag forces and understanding where your momentum is coming from. It sounds super nerdy but it made me understand my 6 foot body in a more efficient way. Ballet taught me about discipline, hard work, and how to persevere through any problem. Physics is all about how much hard work and curiosity you have in you to solve a problem. Ballet teaches you the determination to work through a problem that seems impossible at the start.”

When she graduated, Duncan became the first African American to receive a double major in Physics and Ballet from a Research I University. Recently, she fulfilled a lifelong dream by moving to New York City to pursue a professional dance and modeling career. She woke up every morning to go to auditions ranging from dance and Broadway casting calls to modeling open calls, all while maintaining a part time physics job. Ironically, within weeks of moving across the country, Duncan found herself auditioning for and landing a role with the Pioneer Theater Company, located right here on the University of Utah campus. She has been cast as a "Zeigfeld Girl" in the company's upcoming production of The Will Rogers Follies. Don't miss your chance to see a performance by this incredible artist (and scientist!) May 3 through May 20.