Dance and Medicine Creating a Well-Rounded Scholar

Dance and Medicine Creating a Well-Rounded Scholar
Alexa Robinson is a pre-med student with plans to become a professional dancer. (Jennifer Robertson Photography)

Traditionally, the arts and sciences have been viewed as two distant fields of study. But it isn’t uncommon for Duke’s arts departments to see students with defined career dreams in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) also enrolled in performing and visual arts courses — adding the arts to their educations and transforming STEM to STEAM. 

STEAM student Alexa Robertson (B.S. Biology; minor Dance and Chemistry ’22) has already completed her required courses for the pre-med track. And during her sophomore year, she was an undergraduate research assistant with Duke’s Kwatra Lab, where scientists focus on finding targeted therapies for adults diagnosed with glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive and common brain tumors.

Robertson combines her medical pursuits with her interest in disability rights through volunteer work in special education at a local elementary school. And if that isn’t enough, she also teaches dance to school-age children.

At Duke, Alexa has the opportunity to combine her passions for medicine and the arts, and discusses why she’s making a conscious effort to include dance in her studies.

Was there a catalyst that drew you to the medical field? 

As a whole, my interests in medicine and science can be traced back to some of my earliest childhood experiences. I am a pediatric cancer survivor, thus much of my childhood was spent in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices. My health battles placed the doctors and health care professionals at the top of my list when it came to my idols, and I would say that my first dream was to be like the surgeons who saved me.

I am now proudly cancer-free and have remained intimately connected with my original medical team throughout my scholastic career. I’ve spent countless hours observing them in the operating rooms, chemotherapy clinics and oncology offices.

I think my affinity for science translated to the classroom most notably in high school, where I took every available science course, served in multiple leadership positions within the science honor society and received the academic excellence award in science.

A woman and a young girl dancing
Alexa Robertson (in front) participates in a dance lesson at four years old. (Courtesy Alexa Robertson)

Has dance always been a part of your life?

The short answer is: yes. Having been forced to sit through countless full-length, one-woman shows in our living room, my mom enrolled me in a preprofessional dance program in Raleigh when I was five years old. Under the direction of Christy Curtis, my passion and my foundation were strengthened through the mentorship of world-renowned choreographers.

At national dance conventions, I received exposure and preprofessional training in so many styles of dance. I began to transition into the professional dance scene in 2014, serving as the touring assistant with Velocity Dance Convention’s MVA(+) program and performing alongside artists such as Janet Jackson, Hailee Steinfeld and Jordan Fisher.

This passion came with me to Duke, where I threw myself into the thriving arts scene and took part in Project Arts, eventually serving as the dance program director. I also joined several student-run dance clubs: Sabrosura, Embodiment and the Dancing Devils — and I decided to minor in Dance.

With your course load focused on medicine and several dance clubs requiring long hours in the studio, why did you choose to minor in Dance?

While I’ve taken a dance class every semester at Duke, my formal experience in the Dance Program didn’t begin until my sophomore year, when I took Art of Movement and Dance for the Camera with Andrea Woods-Valdés. Because the courses placed me in the “driver’s seat” in terms of artistic production, they helped to mature my voice as a creative.

The projects created from the ground up showed me that I am a multifaceted artist capable of original productions, and the courses cultivated my skills in film editing, choreographing, directing and multimedium artistic collaboration — intrinsic aspects of a successful artistic career. After taking these courses, I declared my intention to complete a minor in Dance, and the rest is history!

Have your two academic paths at Duke benefited each another?

Absolutely. Coming to Duke, one of my priorities was preserving all parts of myself and learning how to intertwine my interests — rather than stifling my creativity. I see myself as an artist and a scientist who has complex, and often divergent, interests. It was important that my education holistically represented and supported all of my passions and interests.

Balancing my artistic efforts alongside my STEM curriculum has challenged me to develop the keen skills of time management, self-discipline and stress control. While my pre-med journey has been full of long nights in Perkins and deeply channeled grit, my Dance courses have mentally, physically and academically prepared me for my transition into the professional dance industry.

Most of my STEM courses are equation-based or focus extensively on extrinsic issues, so I appreciate my Dance courses’ encouragement to turn inwards and focus on the care of my own physical and mental well-being.

Academically, my time at Duke has not been easy, but I truly wouldn’t change a thing. Every day I feel that my STEM and Dance courses work hand in hand to mold me into the well-rounded scholar I want to be. 

After graduation in May, what does your next chapter look like?

I plan to move to Los Angeles to pursue dancing and acting as a full-time career for a few years. Eventually, I want to matriculate to medical school, where I aspire to work in the field of pediatrics, ideally surgery or oncology.