On his toes | Penn today
The path to becoming a ballerina in the Pennsylvania Ballet started in earnest for Emilie davis when she was in college, taking the stage as Clara in the “The Nutcracker” scene on tour with the Radio City Music Hall rockets. This path also led her to become an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.
It took her six years, working full time as a ballerina during the day and taking Penn classes in the evenings and during the summer while conducting research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). But she did, graduating summa cum laude in May with honors, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology with distinction from the College of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS)
“After six years of slowly chipping away at my degree credit by credit, it was hard to believe my journey at Penn was over. It was so special to be able to celebrate the start in person, especially with the challenges and uncertainty resulting from COVID-19, ”said Davis, who was one of 10 seniors named. Dean’s Scholar for exceptional academic performance and intellectual promise.
“I find it incredible, his endurance. She’s accomplished an amazing thing, doing both of those full-time jobs at the same time, ”said Sarah Cooper, director of community engagement for the Pennsylvania Ballet, noting that the company’s dancers average six hours a day of rehearsal, more representations. “We’ve had dancers who have done both, but Emily’s level is spectacular, to run such an awesome school and the dance and all of its community service as well.”
In addition to dancing, studying, and researching, Davis has created and taught dance and movement classes at nonprofit community service organizations in Philadelphia, including Art-Scope and Puentes of salvation, as well as as production manager of the Shut up and dance fundraising for the Alliance for neighborhood nutrition in the metropolitan region.
“She’s a beautiful, beautifully trained dancer who has had a fabulous dancing career, but it’s her community service that sets her apart,” Cooper said. “She was a great ambassador for us and she took an interest in the disability community.”
Now Davis is preparing to go to Scotland to pursue a doctorate. in the emerging field of dance health, funded by a Thouron grant, forging a unique partnership between two universities and the Scottish ballet. She plans to work in the field of alternative therapies for patients with multiple sclerosis.
“I want to combine my training in biology with my training in dance and work to legitimize this area of dance health,” says Davis, 24, of Gainesville, Fla. “I want to step in and expand the evidence base, integrating my experiences in neurorehabilitation, as well as professional dance and dance health programs.”
Her creative journey evolved while she was a volunteer researcher within the CHOP team led by Laura prosser of Perelman School of Medicine. “She’s going in a new direction: there’s no one doing what she wants to do already,” says Prosser. “She is blazing a new path with her graduate work.”
Davis’s mother signed her up for ballet when she was 3, more as a daycare solution than a career choice. She has also taken lessons in various forms of dance, such as jazz and tap dancing, and has ranked nationally in Irish dance. “That’s what amuses me every time someone asks me: I trained in ballet and Irish dance simultaneously, from completely different fields and schools,” she says.
Around the age of 11, she decided to focus on ballet; she liked discipline. The turning point came with her casting as Clara in Radio City Christmas show, she says. “That’s when I thought I could make a career out of it,” she says. “My family realized it too when they saw me dance on stage with the Rockettes.”
She has toured twice nationally, the first year in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry, and the second year in Florida and Texas, traveling with her mother from September to December.
Her dream of dancing as Clara almost didn’t come true. The first time she tried, she “missed a step” and got cut. So she took an intensive summer course in Miami, tried again, and got it right.
This discipline, determination and perseverance were essential to its success. She joined a pre-professional program at Boston Ballet School his junior and senior years in high school, attending classes during the day at the Newman School in Boston and dance the night away, graduating with an International Baccalaureate in 2015.
“It was a balancing act all through high school and college,” she says.
Penn was her first choice of universities, she says, because of academic opportunities and proximity to the Pennsylvania Ballet. “For me, that was the perfect balance between the flexibility of Penn, such a prestigious university, and the ability to focus on my career in ballet,” she says. “I really saw LPS as an open door to Penn and all of its resources. ”
In ballet she started out as a member of the “second company”, performing primarily for community engagement and with the main company for large productions. After a year she was promoted to “apprentice” and a year later she was promoted to the corps de ballet, officially full-time in the company. “Basically, I never stopped dancing,” she says.
Even during the pandemic, she was in a group of dancers rehearsing and performing for a movie. The last ballet production of the season “Strength. Resilience. Beauty.” was released over Memorial Day weekend. In this performance, Davis danced in a world premiere ballet by Meredith Rainey, Philadelphia choreographer and former Pennsylvania Ballet soloist, set to music by composer Jennifer Higdon.
But a nearly 150-year-old ballet by Tchaikovsky is the most memorable ballet of all, she says. “’Swan Lake’ is my favorite to play and watch,” she said, noting that she had several featured roles. “You put on your swan helmet and your tutu and dance constantly. It’s so powerful, all the women being together. It’s just really special.
She started with a course at Penn, a writing seminar, then added more each semester. “It was certainly difficult to balance my professional life and my academic life, but I chose courses in a very strategic way and I developed a keen sense of time management,” she says.
Very early on, she took two physics courses with Professor William Berner, obtaining an A +. “Notes are only part of Emily’s story,” Berner wrote in a recommendation letter he shared, noting that she would speak to him after dance physics class. “His eye contact and facial expression during ‘ah-ha moments’ revealed a person who could integrate the pleasure of learning into a demanding life. She has a rare combination of skills and motivation to make a difference for the better. “
She has taken several classes during the summers when ballet is usually on hiatus, including studying abroad with Penn in London and Penn in Cannes with Peter Decherney, professor of English and Film and Media Studies, takes a class on Jane Austen and attends plays and films.
“In London, she was one of the most dedicated students: she attended every play and every excursion. She wanted to take advantage of everything the program had to offer, ”Decherney says. “Plus, she danced every day she was there.”
Dance and health and community
Davis contacted Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit that serves the Latinx immigrant community a few blocks from where she lives in downtown Philadelphia and found out that her art program and culture had no dance or movement, so she created and taught an eight-week program attended mostly by young girls. “They love it when I put on my spikes and my tutu,” she says. Before the pandemic, she would arrange for them to attend her performances and take them backstage to meet the other dancers.
For three summers, Davis taught adaptive dance and creative movement classes at Art-Reach, adults and children with developmental disabilities, and this program merged with another at Rehabilitation of Mage hospital for people with brain damage.
“I saw how the arts and health can be intertwined,” says Davis. “I was starting to wonder how to combine dance and health to create a career.”
She also volunteered to conduct research with Prosser’s team at CHOP Research Institute, studying the science of pediatric movement and rehabilitation for children with cerebral palsy and other neuromotor problems. Davis’s work primarily involved behavioral video coding of movement and evolved into two independent research studies that became the basis of his honors thesis.
“It’s wonderful as a researcher to see a student take more interest in the work they’re doing in your lab,” says Prosser. “Emily was engaged in work. She understood the implications of the research and understood how it fits into the larger body of literature. “
On the way to Scotland
Now Davis is eagerly awaiting his next chapter, traveling to Scotland to pursue a doctorate. in dance health, a field that is just emerging from the health arts and dance sciences, she says. The Thouron scholarship will cover his expenses for two years.
The current plan is for her to travel to Glasgow to work with the research manager of the Scottish Ballet Dance Health Research Team. It will have advisers in two institutions: the Royal Conservatory of Scotland, in partnership with the St. Andrews University, and the other to Glasgow Caledonian University. She hopes to take lessons and perform as a guest of the Scottish Ballet.
“Even if I take this step, I don’t see it as the end of my dancing career. My work will be closely linked to that of a ballet company, ”says Davis. “I see myself in both the arts and in health.”