She Was the First Woman of Color in Space—And Dance Helped Her Get There
When Dr. Mae Jemison was growing up, she was obsessed with space. But she didn’t see any astronauts who looked like her.
“I said, Wait a minute. Why are all the astronauts white males?” she recounts in a CNN video. “What if the aliens saw them and said, Are these the only people on Earth?”
So in 1992, when she made her historic trip as the first woman of color to enter space, she wanted to take other people with her. In addition to bringing a statue from a women’s society in West Africa, and a flag representing Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest African American sorority, she took up a poster of Judith Jamison performing Alvin Ailey’s Cry.
Jemison’s love of dance goes back as far as her love of space. As a child, she wanted to be both a scientist and a dancer (and a designer and an architect), and saw each of these ventures as ways of exploring the world around her, she says in the video. “We’re very physical beings,” she says. “So dance is a way of physically exploring the world. So frequently people think of the arts and the sciences as separate and not connected. Both of them are required for creativity. Both of them are required to move the world forward.”
She studied a variety of styles while growing up in Chicago, and continued dancing during her undergraduate years at Stanford, where she also choreographed musical theater productions. Upon graduation, Jemison had to decide whether to pursue a career in dance or attend medical school at Cornell. Her mother’s advice helped her make the decision: ”You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
While in medical school, Jemison continued dancing, taking classes at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And though she went on to log over 190 hours in space, dance continued to be a part of her journey—and she frequently credits her dance training as an important part of her success as an astronaut.
“One of the best questions that was ever asked of me was by a 12 year old girl,” Jemison says in the CNN video. “She asked, How did being a dancer help you be an astronaut? Because dancers have to be very disciplined. You have to practice all the time. You have to constantly rehearse and pay attention to the people around you. You have to memorize complicated structures and scenarios. You have to be pretty thick-skinned as well because you have to be able to take criticism and apply it. All of those things are valuable.”
Today, Jemison leads 100 Year Starship, which aims to make travel outside our solar system possible in the next 100 years. But dance is still part of her life: She even has a dance studio in her house! “Of course I still love dance,” she says in this video. “I don’t do it as much. But I hope maybe I can do ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ ”