“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
When Chelsie Hill dances in her wheelchair, her face says it all. She is absorbed in the moment off stage, in the emotions she conveys, in her ability to captivate the audience. Her wheelchair is an integral part of her silhouette, which she manipulates with strength.
Ms Hill, 31, is the founder of the Rollettes, a dance group for women who use wheelchairs, which was founded in 2012. She performs across the country and hosts an annual empowerment weekend for women with disabilities called the Rollettes Experience in Los Angeles. In late July, the event attracted 250 women and children from 14 countries to the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel for dance classes, showcases and seminars.
More than a decade after she founded the Rollettes, Ms. Hill’s story has spread far beyond the group to include mentorship and education for anyone with a disability seeking community.
“She changed my life,” said Ali Stroker, the actress who made Broadway history in 2019 when she became the first performer to use a wheelchair to win a Tony Award. Ms. Stroker, a close friend of Ms. Hill, won the Tony for best actress for her role as Ado Annie in the Broadway revival of the musical “Oklahoma!”
Ms. Stroker, who was paralyzed from the chest down after a car accident when she was two, said she never had any friends growing up who also used chairs. Ms. Hill, she said, is changing lives by giving wheelchair users an invitation that goes beyond dancing.
“Thanks to her, the lives of so many young girls who have recently been injured have been changed,” Ms Stroker said. “It’s more than just dancing. You are part of this sisterhood, this family. The way she can bring people together is out of this world.”
Nearly 14 years ago, Ms. Hill was a 17-year-old master dancer. But one night in February 2010, her life changed in ways she could never have imagined when she suffered severe spinal injuries in a serious car accident and was unable to move her lower body.
Ms. Hill always felt compelled to tell her story and frame it as a warning. As a teenager who wanted to be a professional dancer, she was haunted by the decisions made the night she got into the car with a drunk driver. A few weeks after the accident, she told her parents from a hospital bed that she wanted to organize an event to discuss it with her classmates.
“It was important to me to make teenagers realize that someone can go from walking to not walking after making a bad decision,” Ms. Hill said.
Ms. Hill grew up in northern California’s Monterey County and her early life was characterized by a sense of security and belonging that, she said, made her feel invincible. She started taking part in dance competitions at the age of five.
“It’s hard to say how good a five-year-old is, but every year I would win a trophy and make my family proud,” she said.
Since she was a practical and physical learner, she found it harder to concentrate on academics. Dance, she said, was her world and priority.
As a freshman, she had a ready-made group of friends on her popular high school dance team, the Breaker Girls. “There’s just something special about dance when you’re on a team, you’re just so in tune with people,” she said.
After Ms. Hill’s accident, she danced with the Breaker Girls again for the first time. Her father, she said, collected wheelchairs from all over Northern California and brought them to a studio with her able-bodied dance team.
“They all sat in the chairs and I got to perform with them,” she said.
Carina Bernier, a close friend of Ms. Hill who was also part of the Breaker Girls, remembers that it was “really challenging to figure out, but so cool and so fun.” Ms. Hill, she added, helped the group to choreograph the routine for that day.
But for a long time after the accident, Ms Hill denied her injury.
“I always thought I would be the miracle that gets up and walks like you see in the movies,” she said.
Nevertheless, in the years following the accident, she returned to dancing and eventually accepted the reality of her injuries. She realized that she had gone from someone who had no trouble fitting in to someone who was now making a visible difference.
“I felt more alone than I had ever felt before,” she said.
Becoming a person with a disability and seeing herself as such radicalized Ms Hill, she said. Until her accident, as a white, able-bodied, middle-class young woman, she had not truly understood or acknowledged the struggles for equality and disability rights.
“A lot of people don’t realize what’s going on in the world until it affects you,” she said, adding, “It’s made me a stronger person.” It’s made me a critical thinker. It made me an innovator. But it’s still hard, you know?”
To reclaim her story as a dancer and wheelchair user, she had to find others like her. The first step was when she joined the cast of “Push Girls,” an unscripted reality TV show about a group of ambitious women who use wheelchairs, in 2011, a year after her accident. The show aired on Sundance for two seasons from 2012 to 2013.
“They became my role models,” she said of the women on the show. “They became the girls that I thought, ‘How do I wear heels?’” How do I date? How do I get my chair into the car? How can I lead a normal life as a young girl with a disability? They all taught me how to do this.”
However, the show has been criticized in some corners for its superficial treatment of people with disabilities. A New York Times critic wrote that the premiere episode fell into “You go, girl” mode and that it “used a tone that is subtly demeaning.”
But on a personal level, Ms. Hill learned from the show to have “thick skin from a young age.” She enjoyed every moment, she said – “even the hard times.”
In 2014, four years after her accident, Ms. Hill moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming a professional dancer.
“It was very, very difficult to break into the industry as a person with a disability here in Los Angeles,” she said. “People looked at me like I didn’t belong. Choreographers didn’t give me the time I needed.”
But she continued to go to class, she said, “because I thought, ‘My passion for dance is so much stronger than what you think about me.’”
As a performer, Ms. Hill uses social media extensively, recording her dances, creating concept videos and vlogging. Many of today’s Rollettes initially reached out to her after seeing her online, writing letters and also recording videos of themselves dancing.
She accomplished what she set out to do: she created an unrepentant sisterhood of girls that supports others. Through the Rollettes, she has developed a close circle of friends, performed across the country, and highlighted support spaces for women with disabilities, all while building her own. In January, she and her husband Jason Bloomfield, a financial advisor, became new parents and named their daughter Jaelyn Jean Bloomfield.
Ms. Hill is aware that people view companies like hers as charities and are unable to recognize the Rollettes through the lens of success. “I have these older men that I have to convince that my company is worth something,” she said.
But she still perseveres. She has ambitious plans for the future of the Rollettes and wants to continue telling her personal story. She was even asked to serve as a consultant on a new dance drama being developed by Disney, “Grace,” about a paralyzed dancer.
The film could bring more visibility to the estimated 3.3 million wheelchair users in the United States, a community that often feels invisible. It almost sounds like another retelling of Ms. Hill’s story.
Source : www.nytimes.com