Former ballerina Shira Lanyi pursues a new dream of becoming a doctor
February 7, 2018

By Megan Schiffres

Shira Lanyi began her dancing career at age 8, and for 20 years threw herself, mind and body, into the art. She performed as a company dancer for eight seasons with the Richmond Ballet, and spent a year as a soloist for the Israel Ballet in Tel Aviv before retiring at the peak of her career in 2015.

Lanyi's retirement came in the wake of her mother's death from cancer, which she said caused her to re-evaluate her own life. Her farewell performance, “Lift the Fallen,” took place on the Richmond Ballet's 2015 Road to China tour, and was choreographed by Ma Cong as a tribute to his mother and the grief he felt when she died from cancer.

"It was a really amazing opportunity and experience, because it was this moment right after my mom had passed away and my heart felt very broken, but being back with my friends and being on stage was really healing," Lanyi said. "I also felt a lot of clarity and that clarity led to my realization that while I would do this for the rest of my life, I know I also want to be a doctor and I don't have forever. So, I decided to retire and start on my progress towards medicine and medical school."

Three years later, Lanyi is a senior biology student in the College of Humanities and Sciences, just like her mother before her. She is also a member of the Honors College.

"Even though I was always really involved in the ballet world, in the back of my mind I always knew I loved science and I loved the idea of becoming a doctor one day," Lanyi said.

Her interest in medicine paralleled her career in ballet as she observed and experienced the physical toll elite athleticism has on the body, she said.

"I found that every time I would go to the company surgeon, I was so fascinated by what was happening and how it was healing and the mechanism behind it,” Lanyi said. “I started to see injuries in that way, with the idea of technique in mind from a ballet dancer's perspective but also with an interest in biology and healing."

Over the years, Lanyi pushed her body to perform exceptional feats of grace, balance and beauty for the audience — but perfection had a price. At 22, she sustained a hip injury that kept her out of the studio for more than six months. Instead of mourning the blow to her career as a ballerina, she used her time off the stage to indulge her interest in medicine by shadowing the ballet company's physician. She said the experience solidified her ambition to one day become a doctor.

Lanyi uses her experience as a ballerina to inform her medical research at VCU, and last year presented a paper to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research on the development of second metatarsal stress fractures among professional classical ballet dancers.

"What really interested me was that that injury was one I kept seeing over and over and over. Every two weeks, a new dancer with that same injury," Lanyi said.

Through her research, Lanyi was able to demonstrate a correlation between the female athlete triad, meaning disordered eating, amenorrhea — the loss of a woman's period due to overtraining or undereating — and osteoporosis, to the prevalence of second metatarsal stress fractures and other injuries of thin bones among professional ballerinas. She said the unhealthy nutritional habits combined with an intensely competitive culture in the ballet world are responsible for the high rates of injury among ballerinas.

"Observing dancers — it's really incredible. You watch them on the stage and they're just so alive and beautiful and graceful and you don't realize what's going on behind the scenes because everything looks so great. Everything is beautiful at the ballet, that's true, but there's a lot of depression, a tremendous amount of depression and a tremendous amount of pressure to remain thin," Lanyi said. "If you're not eating properly and you're overtraining and you have this pressure to remain thin, you're going to be injured. My hope in writing this paper was that it would also bring a little bit more knowledge to ballet companies to take better care of their dancers.”

Lanyi is currently working as a research assistant in the cancer research lab of Anthony Faber, Ph.D., testing a new therapy to treat Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a terminal pediatric brain tumor similar to the type of cancer that killed Lanyi’s mother. While she isn't sure what type of medicine she wants to pursue in the future, Lanyi said the memory of her mother inspires her to keep working toward her dream of becoming a doctor.

"I want to become a part of this. I want to become a part of the knowledge and the search for, and understanding of, what's going on,” she said. “To not just be a victim, or a family member of a victim, but to be active in the process in looking for a cure."