Shira Lanyi has traded her tutu for the white coat of a physician-to-be.
She recently donned her coat as part of a ceremony welcoming the newest Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine students, another step in her journey from the bright lights of the stage with the Richmond Ballet to the daily intensity of the medical world, her years as a ballerina growing smaller in her rearview mirror.
That she has arrived at this point is not particularly shocking — her father is a urologist, and as a young child she almost reflexively would say she wanted to be a doctor — but the timing is what makes her story special. She retired from dancing soon after the death of her mother, whose illness and lifelong influence inspired her to step away from a job she loved for one that in the back of her mind she knew she always wanted.
“She wasn’t here when I made the decision, but her legacy allowed me to make the decision … an amazing mother who always made me want to strive for more,” Lanyi said. “Every day, I think she would be so happy to know what I’m doing.”
Lanyi, 31, grew up in Richmond and began dancing at age 8. She first appeared in Richmond Ballet’s production of the “The Nutcracker” as a page; a decade later, she danced as a snowflake. She later spent two years in an apprenticeship and eight years as a member of the professional company. She danced in “Cinderella,” “Swan Lake” and “Romeo & Juliet,” among many other productions.
Along the way, at the urging of her mother, Ricki Ellen Lanyi, she applied for a program at VCU that would have guaranteed admission to the medical school after she completed her undergraduate degree.
“My mom was always pushing for me to reach a little higher and to stretch myself academically because she knew I loved academics, and she knew I wanted to be a doctor,” Lanyi said. “But I went a little bit kicking and screaming because I wanted to be a ballerina at that point. I felt it was my time, and I was doing well.”
She was offered admission into the program — yet she turned it down.
“I knew it was a big deal, but I just felt it wasn’t my time. I wanted to keep dancing. People always asked, ‘Do you regret that?’”
Her answer years later, with a laugh: “When I was applying to medical school, yes, I regretted it.”
After the 2013-14 ballet season, Lanyi took a leave of absence to spend a year in Israel where her parents lived part-time. She danced professionally and also cared for her mother, who had been diagnosed with glioblastoma. The experience, she said, was heartbreaking as her mother’s health declined precipitously — “I suddenly realized my life wouldn’t be the same without her; she was my best friend” — but also strengthening and helped illuminate her path.
After her mother’s death, she returned to Richmond with a clear-eyed view of her future. She performed with the Richmond Ballet on its “Road to China” tour and then retired to attend school. When Lanyi left Richmond Ballet, artistic director Stoner Winslett said it would be “difficult to imagine our future performances without Shira’s beautiful spirit and warm presence.
“We will fondly remember her talent, her unstoppable drive, and her well-earned ability to step into full-length, classical roles,” Winslett wrote on the ballet’s website. “I have no doubt that Shira will approach her new career with as much drive and determination as was evident within her ballet career here in Richmond. There’s nothing that she can’t do.”
Lanyi enrolled at VCU as a freshman in summer 2015. She was 28 and had been out of school for a decade. She acknowledged being “a little rusty at first,” but she loaded up her class schedule and graduated in three years. She also found time to volunteer as a research assistant at VCU Massey Cancer Center, where she helped test a new therapy to treat a brain tumor — similar to the type of cancer that killed her mother. She relished the opportunity to play a role in the search for a cure.
She graduated in May, and the first day for her medical school class of 2022 was July 30 — her mom’s birthday.
“She would’ve been so ecstatic, and we would’ve talked at least three times that day,” Lanyi said. “I think she would have been so proud and marveled by the fact that I followed my dreams in both dance and in my pursuit of a medical education. My mom will be with me every step of the way, and I look forward to honoring her memory through my dedication and service to others as a physician.”
Long-term, she could see herself combining her loves — medicine and dance — to help heal injured dancers, having gone through her own share of injuries in ballet. But she’s not set on that.
“Something I’ve learned along the way is having an open mind is very valuable,” she said.