Graduating senior Claire Needham learns how to combine body and mind at USC
Claire Needham has been dancing since she was 5. She plans to blend ballet with her new career path of occupational therapy. (Photos: Courtesy of Claire Needham.)

Graduating senior Claire Needham learns how to combine body and mind at USC

A lifelong ballet dancer, Needham found a new passion for neuroscience at USC Dornsife — and a career path that lets her combine both interests. [3¼ min read]
ByMargaret Crable

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus, you could often find Claire Needham practicing plié, relevé and sauté in the light-filled dance studios of the USC Kaufman International Dance Center. Afterwards, she might dart off to a neurobiology or abnormal psychology class.

Needham, who graduates on May 14 with a degree in neuroscience, found a way to combine her lifelong interest in dance with her fascination with the human brain while an undergraduate at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

This summer, she starts on a master’s degree in occupational therapy at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Occupational therapists help patients regain the ability to perform physical activities, often after suffering an illness or injury.

“I am very excited to continue on as a Trojan,” says Needham.

Tiny dancer

Needham’s neuroscience classes inspired her to enter the health care field.

Needham grew up in the small beach town of Encinitas, California, where her mother taught math and her father worked in real estate. She started dance classes at age 5 and never left the barre, exploring both ballet and contemporary dance all the way through high school. She found dancing to be a welcome space to retreat, especially as an introvert.

“It was my place to get away from everyday life stress,” says Needham. “It’s a pretty disciplined sport. There’s not much talking during class. I can make my mind stop for a second and just get out of myself.”

She considered joining a ballet company out of high school but was discouraged by their rigid acceptance standards. Starting at age 13, Needham had auditioned for summer intensive camps but got numerous rejections.

“You hear the stereotypes about different companies like ‘oh, they only like ballerinas with small heads,’” says Needham. “That’s what made me decide I didn’t want to go the professional route.”

She’s grateful for dancers like Misty Copeland, who are slowly changing the perception of what a ballerina can be. Copeland is the first African American woman principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.

“She’s showing that a dancer can also be strong and bigger, not just delicate and thin,” says Needham.

Dancing at Troy   

Needham arrived at USC as a spring admit, having chosen her major somewhat at random. She’d thought neuroscience “sounded cool” — although she didn’t exactly know what it entailed — so she’d selected it as her major when applying. She’s glad she did.

“I just fell in love with the classes and the subjects,” says Needham. “I found that I wanted to go into health care.”

Needham performed with the USC Chamber Ballet company.

Needham also took classes at the USC Glorya Kauffman School of Dance and joined the USC Chamber Ballet Company, a student-run club. Each week, a member leads a lesson, for the troupe and before COVID-19 shutdowns, the company put on regular performances.

Although Needham is a self-described introvert, stage fright wasn’t a concern. “There’s something about being on stage and just seeing the blackness. You know the audience is there, but you don’t really feel them. You just feel yourself. So, it’s not really as scary,” she says.

Moved to help

Classes with Kim Eggleston, assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy, helped Needham find a way to combine movement and medicine.

“She changed my life,” says Needham. “I talked with her a lot at her office hours about my future career. She just really enjoyed what she did and she was fulfilled by her work. I wanted that.”

Volunteering at a pediatric clinic before the pandemic, helping children with autism and learning disabilities complete movement-based therapy, solidified her deserve to join the field. Needham applied for occupational therapy school and was accepted to USC’s program.

She plans to keep on dancing, too: “I would love to incorporate dance into my occupational therapy education, whether through research or learning how dance therapy can help individuals.”