Ziff graduated from James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, but because her father works for the State Department, the family moved to different countries every few years, she said.
Her experiences of science classes varied from place to place, she said. In Bogotá, she and just four peers would get to their 7 a.m. AP biology course, where the instructor encouraged them to be curious and used a Socratic method of inquiry. In Rome, her AP chemistry course was more traditional.
As the family moved around the world, she danced wherever they went.
“It was often a way to connect with my peers in different countries,” Ziff said. “When my family moved to a new place – including Venezuela, Italy, Colombia, Spain or the U.S. – I would search for a new dance studio and enroll, and it not only continued my practice, but helped me make local friends and learn the language.”
After Ziff studied with the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in Northern Israel several times, and then the danza180grados conservatory in Madrid, Spain, she decided that this pursuit of experiences in movement was not just a hobby and she would put more effort into it. The program in Israel was especially demanding and intensive, she said. She returned to the Israeli dance company for five months during a gap year before coming to UVA.
“That was a turning point. I knew I wanted to continue studying dance in college,” said Ziff, whose mother is Israeli. “I wanted to major in biochemistry and minor in dance because I’m interested in the details.”
She added that she was increasingly interested “in the more intricate pathways of life, how tiny fragments of us transform and interact, literally on the molecular level.”
She acknowledged that studying chemistry and practicing dance require different kinds of learning, but there are similarities, as well.
“There are many small parts that make up the molecular intricacies of the body’s regulation, and changing a few of those parts can have rippling effects,” Ziff said. “As I learned more about dance, I realized that small changes in body language, style, music choice, lighting and a host of other factors within a piece of choreography can completely shift its mood and meaning.”
Despite its small size, UVA’s dance program, housed in the Drama Department, offered some mighty strong opportunities for a motivated student like Ziff, who had to get even more creative during the COVID-19 lockdown.
She joined the Miller Arts Scholars, an interdisciplinary arts program that offers a variety of resources for undergraduates to pursue their artistic dreams. The students meet in required seminars, work with faculty and visiting artists, and plan projects and events in their fields. They not only have to present a proposal for a project, but also follow up with a report on the outcome.
For a project last year, Ziff choreographed and created a dance film, learning how to record and edit a performance. In 2020-21, she also earned funding for a Rising Third-Year Arts Award, originally to attend an intensive training session at the American Dance Festival in New York City. When the pandemic prevented that, she and fellow student Kiana Pilson, another Miller Arts Scholar in Dance and arts awardee, commissioned an original duet from acclaimed choreographer Helen Simoneau, to be performed at the UVA Dance Program’s Virtual Spring Dance Concert. They produced the piece as a dance film.