Dancer Chelsie Hill Was Told That Her Paralysis Was the End of Her Career—But She Proved Doctors Wrong
"I didn't know you could go one day from walking to then not."
Chelsie Hill started dancing when she was 3 years old. By the time she was 5, she was competing nationally.
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?'" she tells Health. "And [the doctor] shook his head and was like, 'That's not possible anymore.'"
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.
"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," the 29-year-old says. She 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 tell 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 explains. 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 says they usually either magically walk again or die. Hill thought she was "going to be the miracle that gets up and walks," as she puts 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.
About never being able to dance again: the 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 says.
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 says. "And for me, going into the disability community, there was nothing like that. There was no space for women to go to to feel some sort of normalcy and then also a place for women to go and empower each other and network."
That was in 2012, when Hill was 20. Today, as 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 out as a group allowing Hill to make friends has turned into so much more: a group that changes people's lives. "What I've noticed the last nine years of Rollettes is these women gain the confidence to pursue their dreams," Hill says, 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."
A step in conquering the world includes a new partnership with Aerie. The Rollettes team joined the #AerieREAL Voices campaign earlier this month. Through fall, Aerie will highlight its campaign partners, including the Rollettes, on social, digital, and in-store spaces, sharing what makes them #AerieREAL. The Rollettes team members feel it's a perfect match since both they and Aerie welcome every body.
Thanks to the new campaign with Aerie and dance performances, Hill says she and the Rollettes will continue with this goal: to educate the public about how normal it is to have a disability and how normal life can be if you are disabled. "What is normal to us obviously isn't normal to the next person walking around," she says. "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 says. "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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