Disability Advocate Chelsie Hill Empowers Dancers After Spinal Cord Injury

Famed dancer, former reality star, and disability advocate Chelsie Hill wants to empower others with disabilities to achieve their goals—just like she has.

Hill, who began dancing at age 3, was competing nationally in dance competitions by the time she was 5 years old. Then when she was 17, she heard the words: You're never going to walk again. "Right away, I was like, 'Well, I don't just walk. I'm a dancer. What does that mean?'" Hill told Health. "And [the doctor] shook his head and was like, 'That's not possible anymore.'"

This-Is-Me-Chelsie-Hill-#AerieREAL Voices_Chelsie Hill_The Rollettes_Photo Credit_Aerie
Courtesy of Aerie

Hill's spinal cord had been injured in a drunk driving accident when the car she was a passenger in struck a tree head-on. The injury caused her to become paralyzed from her waist down.

The Effects of Spinal Cord Injuries

The United Spinal Association estimates that about 17,000 new spinal cord injuries (SCI) occur in the U.S. each year, most of which result from vehicle crashes. Most spinal injuries result from a powerful blow that fractures or dislocates vertebrae, disrupting the signals sent between the brain and spinal cord—the bundle of nerves running down the middle of the back.

The injury also takes a profound psychological toll. A research paper from 2022 in the Journal of Personalized Medicine notes that living with a spinal cord injury "forces individuals to reevaluate and reconstruct their personal and social goals and identities in the families and social systems." It's not unusual for people with an SCI to have mental health conditions, with about a third being diagnosed with clinical depression.

Chelsie Hill's Story

"Growing up as a dancer, my body was everything to me...I feel like it's something that I worked on, I used, it was what I wanted to do with my career," Hill said. Hill had plans to go to Los Angeles to dance. "But going from having all function of my entire body and being able to leap, and jump, and kick to having someone who I didn't meet before telling me that that was no longer possible—the first year I was completely in disbelief. I didn't know you could go one day from walking to then not."

For that first year after her accident, Hill took an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to her new reality. "I didn't want to be around wheelchair users," she explained. Eventually, she broke through that feeling and began to meet other people with disabilities. "I started to feel a little bit more like, 'OK, I'm not so alone,' and that to me was the most important thing. I needed to be around people that were like me instead of shying away from them."

Meeting other people like her also taught her about the "in-between" of disability. When someone gets injured or paralyzed in a movie or TV show, Hill said they usually either magically walk again or die. Hill thought she was "going to be the miracle that gets up and walks," as she put it. "I didn't know the in-between." Learning that there was a way to live fully in her new normal was eye-opening and reassuring.

Overcoming Adversity

Hill's doctor was wrong. Hill completed her first wheelchair dance routine in front of her high school shortly after getting home from the hospital. It was during that performance when her "fire of dance was reignited," she said.

With her passion for dance still alive and her realization that surrounding herself with people who were also disabled was good for her, Hill decided to start the Rollettes, a wheelchair dance team. "I had this idea, this vision, that it'd be still cool to have a bunch of girls in wheelchairs dancing in a ballroom," she said. "And for me, going into the disability community, there was nothing like that. There was no space for women to go to feel some sort of normalcy and then also a place for women to go and empower each other and network."

Living Fully

That was in 2012 when Hill was 20. As of 2021, as the CEO, Hill leads the Rollettes performances, always with the group's mission in mind: to empower women with disabilities to live boundlessly and shift perspective through dance. In addition to the dance team, there's also the Rollettes Experience, an international event where children and women in wheelchairs can be empowered, build friendships, and network through activities like dance classes and talks by guest speakers.

What started as a group allowing Hill to make friends has turned into so much more: a group that changes people's lives. "These women gain the confidence to pursue their dreams," Hill said, adding that there's something "about getting into a room with other women that are going through what you go through and being able to share stories...It's really beautiful to see these women be a part of Rollettes or Rollettes Experience and then go after their dreams and just conquer the world."

Working With Aerie To Educate the Public

In 2021, the Rollettes partnered with Aeries American Eagle Outfitters' activewear and lingerie brand. The team joined the #AerieREAL Voices campaign and was highlighted in Aerie's social, digital, and in-store spaces. The Rollettes team members felt it was a perfect match since they and Aerie welcomed everybody.

Hill said that through campaigns and dance performances, she and the Rollettes will continue with this goal: to educate the public about how normal it is to have a disability and how everyday life can be if you are disabled. "What is normal to us obviously isn't normal to the next person walking around," she said. "But also, if you think about it, how an able body lives their life 'normally' isn't the way that the next body [lives]; it's just a different way of life…Normal is normal. But also, normal isn't just one type of normal."

Finding a community of other women with disabilities who teach her this has been her "saving grace," Hill said. "I found people that I can relate to on so many different levels; that has given me the empowerment, and the opportunity, and the confidence to do what I love to do, and that's dance and empowering other women. That's my passion, and I wouldn't have that passion unless I found all of these girls on Rollettes."

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  1. What is spinal cord injury/disorder (Sci/d)? United Spinal Association.

  2. Spinal cord injuries.

  3. Budd MA, Gater DR, Channell I. Psychosocial consequences of spinal cord injury: a narrative review. J Pers Med. 2022;12(7):1178.

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