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Carolina’s Rockette scientist

Double Tar Heel Alexis Payton is living her dream of performing as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall while also working as a data scientist at the UNC School of Medicine. 

Alexis Payton in her dressing room.
Alexis Payton ‘20, ‘21 (MS) is living out her dreams this holiday season by taking the stage at Radio City Music Hall as a Rockette. (Photo by MSG Entertainment)

Alumna Alexis Payton dreamed of becoming a Rockette when she was a Carolina student, and for the second year in a row, she’s living out that dream by taking the stage at Radio City Music Hall to perform in the 89th “Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes.”

“We do more than 200 shows per season and perform six days a week, but before every show, we take time to remember why we do this,” Payton ‘20, ‘21 (MS) says. “When I meet little girls who want to be Rockettes one day or people who see the show as their family holiday tradition, it keeps the spirit of the show exciting for me.”

Payton is one of 84 professional dancers who audition each year for a spot in the iconic Rockettes kickline. But Payton is unique in that performing at Radio City isn’t her only job. She also works remotely as a research data analyst for the UNC School of Medicine’s Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology. She describes herself as a “Rockette Scientist” who balances life in the arts and STEM.

Balancing her love of science and dance started when she was a Carolina student.

“I knew going into college that I wanted to set myself up for a career in both the sciences and dance, so I found a way to feed my artistic side by joining UNC’s Kamikazi dance team and squeezing in dance classes when possible while also majoring in environmental health science and minoring in biology,” Payton says.

As an Elizabeth “Pepper” Dowd Carolina scholar, Payton also worked as a research assistant as an undergraduate and decided to continue her education by earning a master’s degree in environmental sciences and engineering from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. During that time, she still dreamed about becoming a professional dancer and attended the Rockettes Conservatory, an invitation-only intensive training program for potential future Rockettes. She auditioned three times. In 2021, she received the call asking her to join the nearly century-old tradition of the Rockettes.

“It’s been a dream come true to perform in the Christmas Spectacular for two years now,” Payton says. “This year was special because my cast and I also got to perform at the premiere of the Hallmark movie ‘A Holiday Spectacular.’ It’s about a woman who makes sacrifices to move to New York City hoping to become a Rockette, which many of us on the line can relate to.”

When she’s not on stage executing Rockette classics like the eye-high kickline or the wooden soldier fall, Payton is coding and extracting insights from data sets. The switch between the arts and STEM is always a welcome one, though.

A line of Rockette dancers on stage

Alexis Payton is performing in the Rockettes’ 89th Christmas Spectacular this year. (Photo by MSG Entertainment)

“I really enjoy it because it helps me keep balance in my life,” Payton says. “I’ve had many people tell me I have to choose between dance and data science, but my family always encouraged me to do what I love, which happens to be both. Now, I make sure to tell others to pursue whatever passions they have and not feel like they have to choose one over the other.”

This year, Payton will perform in the Christmas Spectacular on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, and her family is flying up from North Carolina to watch her in her element on stage. Seeing her family in the audience at Radio City Music Hall is a reminder that she’s continuing a long-standing holiday tradition for other families as well.

“When I moved to New York City, I began to understand how much the Rockettes are part of Christmastime here,” Payton says. “We’ve been performing some classic parts of the show since 1933, but we’re incorporating a reimagined number called ‘Dance of the Frost Fairies’ this year. It’s amazing to be part of keeping traditions alive while keeping the show fresh for those who come see us every year as part of their tradition.”