Think of ballet class as a science lab where you can study kinematics and forces. Now, imagine a dancer on pointe shoes to visualize energies and frequencies.
If you can start this process, you can begin to see what inspired Sydney Duncan, a senior in physics and ballet, to study her love of both dance and science when she came to the U in 2012. While some may still find it difficult to reconcile the two majors, Duncan is used to her interests going against the grain of other people’s expectations. While there are certainly other black female ballerinas, women in physics and even other women who have pursued double majors in both dance and science, very rarely do the three combine as successfully as they have in Duncan’s life.
“Yeah, people do call me crazy. Or they’re like, ‘You’re so amazing, that’s so inspiring that you’re doing this.’ It’s those people that I remember,” Duncan said. “And those nights when I have no sleep and I have an exam to study for in the morning and my ankles are swollen and I have blisters for days, and I’m choreographing pieces, I remember those little girls I am inspiring. I remember that what I’m doing has never been done before.”
Balancing them has, however, had its toll on her — emotionally, mentally and physically.
“It’s always a compromise. Unfortunately, it’s always been really hard to rehearse on top of [dancing] and having to study and read and do my homework and all of that,” Duncan said. “It means a lot to get these two majors for me. I’ve put in so much work, doing so many hours for both. I’m definitely sleep-deprived since 2012.”
She’s also had to sacrifice the typical aspects of college, like going out to party, drinking and meeting guys. She said this makes her a little sad, but she wouldn’t do things differently.
Duncan completed her ballet degree in December and will finish the rest of her undergrad career at the end of 2016. To fit all of her required courses into four and a half years, she took 10 courses a semester on average, totaling up to about 20 credit hours, not counting the daily three to six hours of dance practice.
This spring, she’s scaled back her studies a bit, taking six courses, mostly upper-division physics classes. This is in addition to recovering from a recent foot surgery and continuing to dance in her spare time.
“I just might have to crawl across the stage when I’m getting my two degrees, but I just remember that there are people who are rooting for me,” Duncan said. “I’m inspiring in the black community and the ballet community and the science community.”
In addition to the mental and physical strain, she’s also dealt with the racial and gender prejudices that exist within both of her majors. As a six-foot-tall African-American woman, she doesn’t exactly blend into the status quo of ballet or physics.
“You know, a lot of people don’t talk about this, but with ballet it’s a certain aesthetic, whether you want to believe that or not. The African-American women that even get in the door with ballet companies are people who have physical body parts that fit a European bone structure,” Duncan said. “I’m very aware that my feet don’t curl like some of the other girls. I’m aware that my legs are way longer. There’s 28 or 40 girls on stage all doing the same movement, and when you’re six feet tall and everyone else is 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-6, you stick out like a sore thumb. And that I’m darker, and I look different, my body’s different, you’re aware of that.”
She’s said she’s received some discouragement because of her body and height, even if few have stated outright that her body and color are going to work against her in the field of ballet.
“African-Americans are known for having more muscular bodies, and since we look so different from other dancers, we just stick out, and that’s not what a ballet company wants,” she said. “So if you ask any black ballerina, she’s going to tell you the same thing — I want to be in this world, but I am aware what I’m up against.”
In physics she’s even more of a minority.
“I’m a woman, and I’m black. There are no black kids in my classes. I think I saw one guy in my quantum physics class — I think he’s a grad student,” Duncan said. “I’m constantly aware of that, and that almost makes me feel like an outsider even more. Which kind of sucks, but I’m so used to being this kind of weird polka dot in a sea of white.”
To combat the negativity of prejudice and bias, as well as the wear and tear we all feel from working our way through college, Duncan takes an hour out of her day to do hot yoga and to stay in contact with those who support her.
“Positive energy within your life is so important to get you through. These have been the four hardest years of my life,” Duncan said. “Sometimes I don’t get to study as much or not get as much sleep as I need to physically be 102 percent. There’s definitely been tough decisions in both situations, but with all the sacrificing that I’ve done, it’s always been out of love.”
This love for physics and ballet has been there since the beginning. While most students change their major two or three times throughout the course of their undergrad careers, Duncan has stuck to her studies since she first got to the U. In fact, when deciding which universities she wanted to attend in high school, she narrowed her search to schools that had great programs for each of her passions.
After she graduates, Duncan said she’d like to dance professionally and has already started auditioning for several companies. After she’s performed for a while, she would like to return to graduate school to continue studying physics, focusing on astrophysics in particular. No matter what route her life takes, she said both of her studies will always be in her life.
“When you get on stage you can just let your soul become this bigger entity, and it’s like this ethereal moment of just being this thing that’s greater than you,” Duncan said. “I think in the same way about physics. When you think about the universe, you’re this small, little thing in the grand scope of our Milky Way galaxy and our universe, but you’re part of that universe. It’s so vast and amazing.”