She's a Ballerina. And a Quantum Physicist. And Maybe an Astronaut.
For the past decade, Merritt Moore has been living a double life as both a professional ballerina and a quantum physicist. While dancing with Zurich Ballet and Boston Ballet, she received her undergrad degree from Harvard in physics, and she's currently pursuing a PhD in quantum physics at Oxford while performing with English National Ballet and London Contemporary Ballet.
Now, Moore is hoping to add another ball to her juggling act: becoming an astronaut. She's one of 12 contestants competing on the BBC reality show " Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?" For six weeks, Moore and her competitors face a series of demanding physical and psychological challenges to see if they're astronaut material. (Show mentor Chris Hadfield, former Commander of the International Space Station, will recommend the winner to space agencies recruiting for astronauts.) Even in a cast of extremely accomplished people—the contestants include a military pilot, a surgeon, and a dentist who has summited Mount Everest—Moore's unusual combination of skills stands out.
We leveled with the renaissance woman about how she's managed to pursue all her different passions.
Moore gets her stretching in while she studies (courtesy Moore)
How do you balance such a demanding schedule?
It takes a lot of persistence and patience. I've secretly done abs and feet exercises during seminars, I've fallen asleep on foam rollers, I've brought lacrosse balls to massage out my back during dinners, and I've done floor barres at the back of the bus during my two-hour commute between Oxford and London. My roommates are surprised if I'm sitting at my desk rather than studying in the splits on the floor or with a leg up in a doorway.
What keeps you dancing?
I've tried retiring 10 times. I've burned the pointe shoes; I've thrown out the leotards. But dance always draws me back. I'm not me without it—I have much lower energy, I can't concentrate, my grades drop. There's a wonderful euphoria that I only experience when I dance.
James Glader, courtesy Moore
What drew you to physics?
Physics brings to light so many mysteries, whether they be in the night sky or on a very small scale in the quantum realm. It requires imagination to understand difficult concepts, and creativity to figure out ways to solve problems. I loved puzzles and math as a kid. Physics combines those two passions, and there's the added bonus of it being applicable to the real world.
What's your advice for people who want to dance professionally, but also have other passions?
I highly recommend that every dancer have a second passion. I'm convinced it makes you a better dancer. Having that non-dance interest keeps things in perspective and makes you really appreciate what a privilege it is to dance. We all know the dance world can be a bit crazy sometimes, and inevitably we feel judgement, negativity, or insecurity. But if you have a second passion or career, that gives you the freedom not to care so much. It keeps you hungry to get back into the dance studio, and inspires new movement.
Trust your body. Your body is smarter than you think it is. When you can't find time to get to a dance class, be creative. For example every morning I turn on music and improv in my room. (I post some examples @physicsonpointes on Instagram, with the hashtag #mymorningroutines.)
How has your involvement in the arts affected your career in science?
Today, I think it's silly to categorize people as either having an analytical brain or a creative brain. Creativity is needed all the time in the lab to think of new solutions and to visualize problems in different ways. And in the dance world, being analytical allows you to stretch the limits of your physical abilities while finding new, innovative forms of movement.
Do you have plans to combine your dance and physics work somehow?
Yes! I'm determined to do so. Once I submit my PhD thesis in the next month, I'm going to dance full time, and focus on projects that merge physics and dance. At the moment I'm working on a dance piece for London Contemporary Ballet Theater that involves robotics, which will be at the Victoria & Albert Museum next month. I'm also pursuing a virtual reality project fusing physics and dance. And I'm brainstorming a children's book series with my sister about a dancing physicist, focusing on empowering young girls.
Moore and Michael Waldrop (Niina Tamura, courtesy Moore)
Have you always been interested in space?
I've dreamed of being an astronaut since I was very young, when I would identify constellations at night with my dad and read books about astronauts with my mom. That led to my fascination with physics, but I never thought becoming an astronaut would be a real possibility. The minute I heard about the BBC program, that dream was rekindled. A friend mentioned it at a dinner party, and I immediately got up from the table and applied from the hallway without thinking twice.
It sounds like the challenges the show puts you through are taxing both mentally and physically. How did ballet help you deal with these situations?
Ballet taught me persistence, and that's by far my greatest strength. As dancers, we have to think on our feet. Live performances are never perfect, but we have to keep a level head and make do with whatever comes our way. I'd never experienced any of the tasks I encountered throughout this astronaut process. I often felt overwhelmed, but I persisted.
James Glader, courtesy Moore
What was the biggest challenge for you on the astronaut training program?
Being mic'd up with cameras in my face while doing difficult tasks took me out of my comfort zone. I'm used to quietly working in a ballet studio or in a dark lab, with no one else around. And to be given one chance at unfamiliar tasks was beyond intimidating! I spend years preparing for ballet performances or physics exams, so to have only a few minutes to digest a task —like hovering a helicopter—and then perform it under pressure was really tough.
What did you enjoy most about the reality program?
The thrill of the challenges! The whole process was a shock to the system in an invigorating way. The adrenaline rush was addictive. It was also great to meet the candidates. They're all incredibly impressive, and really lovely human beings.
In the physics lab (courtesy Moore)
Will you apply for a position as an astronaut if you win?
Whether I win or not, I'll continue training to apply to be an astronaut. The average astronaut is hired in her mid-thirties, so I've got some time. I've started piloting lessons, and hope to get a license in the next couple years. Even though one can never count on being an astronaut (less than 0.15 percent make the cut), the pursuit of it will challenge me to improve every day.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.