Dancing by day and studying by night, Emily Davis (LPS '21) is not your typical Penn student. Emily has been performing with the Pennsylvania Ballet for the last six years while simultaneously finishing up her biology degree. She’s also one of five Penn students who received this year's Thouron Award, which will fund her Ph.D. in the United Kingdom next year.
The Gainesville, Florida native started dancing when she was only three years old. “My mom needed to, you know, put me somewhere after school [while] she was working,” she says. But she soon fell in love with ballet and realized that dancing was something she wanted to passionately and professionally pursue. Her first professional experience was dancing in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
Emily has been juggling a demanding academic load and an intense dance career since her junior year of high school in 2013, when she moved to Boston alone for a pre–professional dance program along with an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. Then, she finally landed her dream job: corps de ballet in the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Emily describes her time with the Pennsylvania Ballet as “amazing.” But it’s not all fancy performances and pretty pointe shoes. She says being a ballerina is more of a lifestyle than a job, something that is grueling both physically and mentally. Still, her face lights up when she talks about performing. The roles she’s liked best have been in the corps de ballet for Swan Lake and a nine–person, jazzy ballet by Jerome Robbins.
But Emily's favorite part of being a ballerina? Her fellow dancers, whom she’s jokingly dubbed her "girl squad."
“I always love that camaraderie on stage. You can make eye contact with people. You'll maybe squeeze someone's hand. And it's all the connection that you feel out there, I think, [that] makes it so incredible,” she says affectionately. Being on stage with her other dancers is what she’s missed the most during COVID–19.
Despite her ballet career taking off and requiring a lot more time and energy, Emily wasn’t ready to give up her academic aspirations just yet. One of the things that attracted her to the Pennsylvania Ballet in particular was the fact that she could take classes at Penn’s School of Liberal and Professional Studies, which would fit around her work schedule. She officially enrolled as an LPS student in 2015. But Emily lacks that frenzied energy that overscheduled Penn students have. She attributes this to “very strategic” planning, with many classes taken in the summer and at night.
“I knew what our programs would look like, and during finals is when we would have the Nutcracker. So I would kind of plan maybe to take a class like physics. I would only have one exam, but then have another class that's writing so I could prepare with writing the paper earlier on,” she explains. Her major choice was also part of this plan: she wanted to do something health–related, and biology classes happened to fit her schedule best.
One of Emily's favorite LPS memories is participating in the program's last ever writing seminar, where she got to be in a group of diverse, non–traditional students, including other ballerinas, veterans, and Penn staff. She believes this class and its “diversity of people and stories” encompasses her LPS experience. Emily has also enjoyed her time in Philadelphia, and her eyes light up as she talks about exploring all the different restaurants dotted across its different neighborhoods.
Emily is also a 2021 Thouron Scholar. She originally found the program when browsing the CURF website. She was interested but wasn’t going to apply because of her job as a ballerina. However, as the COVID–19 pandemic began to have tremendous economic repercussions, Emily was furloughed and suddenly had a lot of time on her hands. She decided to apply on a whim and was informed a few months later that she won the scholarship, which would fully fund her postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom. She’s excited about moving and pursuing a Ph.D. focused on the biopsychological effects of dance, inspired by others there who have been researching the intersection between the arts and health. She’s still in the process of applying to specific universities across the United Kingdom, including Oxford, Leeds, and Glasgow.
Emily isn’t giving up on dance quite yet, though. “I feel like I'm kind of reversing what I did coming to Philadelphia, where I came here with the job and then figured out school. I feel like I'm kind of figuring out school, and then going to try to figure out the job,” she laughs. She’s enthusiastic about the artistic scene in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, and she hopes to be back on stage there. She also wants to continue her dance community engagement, which she has done in Philadelphia through teaching workshops with organizations like Art–Reach, Nemours Children’s Hospital, and Puentes de Salud. She’s not exactly sure what the future looks like, but she “[has] faith that it’ll work out how it should,” an expression she considers her life motto.
I can imagine Emily years from now, making breakthrough scientific discoveries or being a prima ballerina doing shows all around the world. Honestly, she'll probably do both.