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How a Ballerina Can Inspire Us to Eradicate Polio

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Afternoon of a Faun, a documentary by Nancy Buriski, tells the incredible story of Tanaquil "Tanny" Le Clercq, a world-renowned ballerina who was struck down at the height of her career by polio. Tanny is best known for her role as a lead dancer in the New York City Ballet in the 1950s and for being a creative muse to the "father of American ballet," George Balanchine. But the story of her battle with polio -- which left her paralyzed at age 27 -- often goes untold.

A documentary about Tanny's rise to fame, tragic fall and her perseverance to live a purpose-driven life premiered this month at the New York Film Festival. As an artist who studied ballet for several years and a polio eradication advocate, I found her story deeply moving and her strength inspiring.

In 1946, when she was 16, Tanny performed at a March of Dimes benefit. The March of Dimes, founded in 1938 by President Roosevelt, was the engine that powered a national movement to raise money in support of polio research and education efforts. In the benefit performance, Tanny plays the role of a polio victim who miraculously recovers thanks to a flood of donations.

Ten years later, just before she joined the New York City Ballet's European Tour, Tanny made a fateful decision that changed the course of her life. As her fellow dancers lined up to receive the polio vaccine, Tanny decided to postpone getting vaccinated until after she returned from the tour. Tragically, while performing with the company in Denmark, she fell ill and was diagnosed with polio the next day.

As a dancer, your body is your tool -- your art. For Tanny, the star of one of the greatest ballet troupes, to lose this and to be faced with the prospect of confinement to a wheelchair for the rest of her life was an almost unbearable struggle.

Tanny reminds us of the devastation that polio causes: it ruins lives and shatters dreams. At its height, polio devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands around the world, from infants to celebrities to future presidents. Since 1956, when Tanny contracted polio, the world has made giant strides toward eradication. Thanks to a global effort to eliminate the disease, polio cases have decreased by more than 99 per cent since 1988 -- from an estimated 350,000 cases to just a few hundred today.

Tanny was fortunate enough to receive the best care available. She spent time recuperating at the famed Georgia Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center, where President Roosevelt also sought solace when he contracted polio, but her ability to dance never returned. She dedicated the remainder of her life to training other ballerinas and went on to teach at the newly-established Dance Theater of Harlem.

Today, most children crippled by polio are not as lucky as Tanny. In the three endemic countries that have never stopped transmission of the disease -- Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria -- and in countries where outbreaks occur, polio ruins the lives of some of the poorest and most marginalized children. With little access to care or rehabilitation, many are forced to crawl through the streets padding their knees with tires and cardboard.

The good news is that earlier this year, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched a plan to achieve a polio-free world by 2018. The plan is already working: in the three endemic countries, polio cases are down by a total of 40 per cent compared to this time last year. Communities around the world, young and old, must throw their support behind this plan and stay committed to the effort until we've eliminated the last case of polio.

Just as Tanny did not let polio hold her back from the world of dance, the global community cannot let up its efforts to eradicate polio and protect children from this debilitating disease. My hope is that Tanny's story will inspire a new generation of advocates to finish the fight. Her tenacity already lives on through the work of polio survivors like Ramesh Ferris, an Indian-born Canadian who hand-cycled across Canada to raise funds for polio, Ayuba Gufwan, whose NGO Wheelchairs for Nigeria provides hand-powered wheelchairs to people crippled by polio, and many others.

Tanny, who was only predicted to live into her 40s, passed away in 2000 at the age of 71. She only saw the beginning of this incredible global fight to end polio, but I imagine she would be proud of how far we've come. Now, let's rid the world of polio forever, and let's do it together.

Ksenia Solo is a three-time Gemini Award winning actress and 2013 Canadian Screen Award Nominee. She is best known for her roles in Black Swan, Life Unexpected and Lost Girl, and is an advocate for polio eradication. Follow Ksenia on Twitter @KseniaSolo.