Patients who come to Novant Health Orthopedics & Sports Medicine - Cotswold don’t usually realize that a former ballet star may be taking care of them.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Many of them figure it out as soon as they meet Isaac Stappas, physician assistant (PA) and a retired dancer with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), the legendary New York company founded in 1936.

“Some patients say, ‘I can tell you were a dancer because of the way you’re holding yourself,’” said Stappas, who works with Dr. Jerry Barron.

Isaac Stappas by Jade Young
Isaac Stappas. Photo credit: Jade Young

“For years, dancers are told to stand a certain way – shoulders back, core strong,” he said. “I started dancing when I was young. I’m standing at the barre; the teachers are telling us to stand up straight. It’s second nature by now.”

“If a patient doesn't know I was a dancer, and they start telling me about an injury they sustained in ballroom dancing doing X, Y and Z, they assume I don't know what they’re talking about,” he continued. “So, I tell them I was a professional dancer for 15 years and that I know exactly what they’re talking about. Their eyes light up.’”

Stappas was a bona fide star in his previous life. So was his wife, Kristi Boone – also an ABT dancer.

You probably know ABT even if you don’t think you do. Are these names familiar?

  • Mikhail Baryshnikov was ABT’s one-time artistic director.
  • Misty Copeland made history in 2015 when she became ABT’s first Black female principal dancer.
  • Russian native Alexander Godunov was a principal dancer with ABT until 1982 and later an actor who starred with Harrison Ford in “Witness.”
  • ABT dancer Gelsey Kirkland wrote two autobiographies about her dance career. The New York Times called the first one (“Dancing on My Grave”) “the talk of the dance world.”

When Stappas retired from dance, he didn’t become a movie star or write a tell-all book. He became an orthopedic PA – a logical second career, if you think about it.

Early bloomer

Stappas grew up in Kernersville, North Carolina, and started dancing when he was 8. Countless young dancers have dreamed of, but never achieved, the career that Stappas pulled off. He attended the famed North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem until, at 17, he auditioned for the American Ballet Theatre – and was offered a contract. He left school during his junior year and set out for New York.

But he would later finish high school, via correspondence courses, and then take college classes at Long Island University at night – after long days of rehearsal.

He officially retired from American Ballet Theatre in 2011 and went back to school at Long Island University to finish his undergraduate degree – a bachelor’s of science in dance.

“I loved my career,” he said. “I was part of a world-renowned company that toured the world. We got to see different countries, different cultures and meet many world leaders. The problem is: You can't do it forever.”

Dancing is hard on a body, and most dancers will sustain injuries during their careers. Some may be career-ending. Stappas never had to deal with anything that serious. “I had injuries – maybe from overuse – and had to take time off to recover, but I never required surgery.”

“As dancers, we start young,” Stappas said. “And, we end fairly young because it's a very athletic career, and you can do it for a while, but when you're 35, 40 it’s not the same as when you're 15 or 16. That's the hardest thing for dancers – what to do after we retire.”

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Planning ahead

“I loved performing,” he said. “But as much as I loved doing it, I didn't want it to be the only thing I did. I knew I wanted to get into the medical field. My sister-in-law is a CRNA (certified registered nurse anesthetist) in New York, and she suggested the physician assistant world. She told me there were a lot of opportunities and a lot of need. The ballet company had many donors in New York who were orthopedic surgeons and, I was able to shadow them and get experience at hospitals.”

Physician assistants are required to have master’s degrees, and the programs are small and highly competitive. “They want to see patient-care hours,” Stappas said, “so they know you know what you're getting yourself into.”

Stappas asked ABT’s physical therapists to teach him anatomy. He shadowed orthopedic surgeons in clinics and at the hospital. Having done all the right things, Stappas was accepted into PA school at Elon University.

When it was time to look for a job, Stappas had heard that Barron was the official doctor for the Charlotte Ballet company as well as several sports teams. The chance to work with dancers and other athletes appealed to him. He told Barron that when he shadowed New York orthopedists and dancers would come in, he could often “translate” their terminology so the doctor could better understand the injury.

“When a dancer tells me she was injured while doing a fouetté or manèges, I know exactly what that means,” he said. “I understand what happened and why it’s hurting and can help with a treatment plan.” Stappas assists Barron with patient care every step of the way – from the clinic to the OR to post-operative care.

Stappas and his wife, who now have two daughters, attend Charlotte Ballet performances. “Dance has been a big part of my life and always will be,” he said. “When I see Charlotte Ballet perform, I enjoy the art of it, and I can understand the intensity of it.”

If dancers want to speak to Stappas about his previous career or what comes after retirement, he’s happy to discuss his experience. “I was fortunate to have had a wonderful career as a professional ballet dancer,” he said. “I believe it has been paramount in my ability to extend extraordinary care to my patients.”