Calculating Her Next Move: Duncan Combines Best of Both Worlds

By Holly Vasic

University of Utah graduate Sydney Duncan, the first black woman with a double major in physics and ballet, is finally living her dream. Her hard work and perseverance paid off as she begins her professional dance career with Avant Chamber Ballet, a Dallas-based dance company. Though she is currently focusing on dance, she is not done with physics and sees a master’s degree in her future.

Duncan grew up in Dallas, Texas, and after being away from home for 5 years, she is happy to again be surrounded by family and friends as her career takes off. She began taking ballet lessons at age 3, but she didn’t fall in love with the art until she was in third grade. At age 12, Duncan saw a performance by a black dance group, the Garth Fagan Dance Company, and her dream of becoming a professional dancer was born.

“That was the first time I saw people who looked like me on stage, and it finally clicked,” Duncan said. “I said ‘I want to be a professional dancer’ and I didn’t get that epiphany until I saw people who looked like me on stage.”

Her passion for physics blossomed when she was in high school and she had a teacher who made physics relatable. Duncan was able to bring the concepts she learned from the classroom into the dance studio. Her zeal for the performing arts and science brought her to the U because of the unique programs the U has to offer in both fields of study.

Duncan loved her time at the U and she is grateful for her experience, but it wasn’t easy.

“I wasn’t getting any sleep, I was just drowning in work, and I would just cry because I felt so inadequate,” Duncan said. “I just felt like this is where it’s going to happen, this is where I’ll have to drop out of the physics department because I am not smart enough.”

Her family’s support inspired her to keep going with encouraging words like, “It’s going to be hard, go and do,” which Duncan remembers her dad saying.

As she struggled through her third year of college, she also became aware through physics conferences and discussions that there wasn’t anyone else like her.

“I wasn’t thinking until my junior year, ‘Hey there [are] barely any black people in my class,’” Duncan said. “I grew up in a predominately white institution realm. I have been at high schools and in the ballet world where yes, I was always the one minority, I just assumed that’s how it is.”

This realization inspired Duncan to find others like her. She searched through records, asked around, emailed institutions, and she discovered she was in fact the first black woman to double major in physics and ballet. Duncan was excited, but still felt alone so she became involved in organizations like women of physics, which Duncan described as “a support group of women talking about their issues, learning you’re not alone, learning you have a girl in your class that you haven’t reached out to that you can now be study partners with.”

After graduation, Duncan moved to New York City, but she ended up back in Utah for about 7 weeks with the Pioneer Theater Company. When she returned to New York, she continued going to auditions while maintaining a part-time physics teaching job to support herself. Then she was offered a ballet contract with the Avan Chamber Ballet where she is both nervous and thrilled to begin apprenticing.

“It’s definitely less stressful than it was in college, so it gets better,” Duncan said.

Duncan advises students to pursue their interests and not overwhelm themselves with studies they do not have a passion for. In the end, students should be excited about what they are able to accomplish after college.

“If you want to get a double major to make money and all of that, do that, but don’t do it because you feel that you’re not good enough,” Duncan said. “I wish someone told me that my freshman year. Don’t do physics because you feel like you’re not going to make it as a dancer. Don’t put that in your mind. Say, ‘Hey I want to be a dancer and I’m gonna get this double major to complement things I’m interested in, that I’m passionate in. ‘But it’s not because I’m not gonna make it.”

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