How the Rollettes Dance Team Created a Sorority for Disabled Women

How the Rollettes Dance Team Created a Sorority for Disabled Women

“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women who drive change in sometimes unexpected places.

When Chelsie Hill dances in her wheelchair, her face tells you everything. She is absorbed by the present moment beyond the stage, by the emotions she transmits, by her ability to hold the audience. Her wheelchair is an integral part of her figure, which she manipulates with power.

Ms Hill, 31, is the founder of Rollersa dance team for women in wheelchairs established in 2012. They perform across the country and host an annual empowerment weekend in Los Angeles for women with disabilities called the Rollettes Experience. In late July, the event attracted 250 women and children from 14 countries to the Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles hotel for dance classes, performances and seminars.

More than a decade after founding the Rollettes, Ms. Hill’s story has spread far beyond the group to include mentoring 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 who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony Award. One of Ms. Hill’s close friends, Ms. Stroker won the Tony, for best featured actress, for her role as Teen 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 2, said that growing up she never had friends who also used chairs. Ms. Hill, she said, changes lives by extending an invitation to wheelchair users that goes beyond dancing.

“Thanks to her, the lives of so many recently injured girls have changed,” Ms Stroker said. “It’s much more than dancing. You are part of this brotherhood, 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 champion dancer. But one night in February 2010, her life changed in ways she could never have imagined when a serious car accident left her with severe spinal injuries and left her unable to move his lower body.

Ms. Hill always felt compelled to share her story, presenting it as a warning. As a teenager attempted to become 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, from a hospital bed, she told her parents that she wanted to organize an event to discuss it with her classmates.

“I was passionate about teens understanding that a person can go from on to off after making a bad decision,” Ms. Hill said.

Growing up in Monterey County, Northern California, Ms. Hill’s youth was defined by a sense of security and belonging that she said made her feel invincible. She began participating in dance competitions at the age of 5.

“It’s hard to say how good a 5-year-old is, but every year I would always win a trophy and make my family proud,” she said.

As a hands-on, physical learner, it was more difficult for her to concentrate on her studies. Dance, she said, was her world and her priority.

As a freshman, she had a ready-made group of friends on her popular high school dance team, The Breaker Girls. “There’s something about dancing when you’re part of a team, you’re so in tune with people,” she said.

After Ms. Hill’s accident, it was with The Breaker Girls that she danced again for the first time. Her father, she said, would collect wheelchairs in Northern California and bring them to a studio with his able-bodied dance team.

“They were all sitting in chairs and I got to play with them,” she said.

Carina Bernier, a close friend of Ms. Hill’s who was also a member of the Breaker Girls, remembers that it was “really hard to understand, but so cool and so much fun.” Ms. Hill, she added, helped the group choreograph the day’s routine.

But long after the accident, Ms. Hill denied her injury.

“I always thought I would be that miracle that gets up and walks again, like you see in the movies,” she said.

Still, in the years following the accident, she returned to dancing and finally accepted the reality of her injuries. She came to understand that she had gone from being someone who had no trouble fitting in to someone who now had a visible difference.

“I felt a feeling of being so alone in a way that I had never felt before,” she said.

Becoming a disabled person and understanding herself as such radicalized Ms. Hill, she said. Until her accident, as a young, white, middle-class, able-bodied woman, she had not really understood or recognized the struggles for equality and the rights of people with disabilities.

“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 made me a critical thinker. It made me an innovator. But it’s always difficult, you know?

Reclaiming her story as both a dancer and a wheelchair user meant finding 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 for two seasons, from 2012 to 2013, on the Sundance Channel.

“They became my role models,” she said of the women on the show. “They became the girls that I would say, ‘How can I wear heels?’ How can I date someone? How do I put my chair in the car? “How can I live a normal life as a young girl with a disability? » “They all taught me how to do that.”

In some corners, however, the series has been criticized for its superficial treatment of people with disabilities. A New York Times reviewer wrote that the first episode went into “You go, girl” mode and used “a subtly meaningful tone.”

But on a personal level, for Ms. Hill, the show taught her to have “thick skin from a young age.” She loved every moment of it, 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 here in Los Angeles as a disabled person,” she said. “People looked at me like I didn’t belong. The choreographers didn’t give me the time of day.

But she continued taking classes, she said, “because I was like, ‘My passion for dance is much stronger than what you think of me.’ »

Like a interpreter, Ms. Hill uses social media extensively, recording her dances, making concept videos, and vlogging. Many of the women who are now Rollettes first contacted her after seeing her online, writing letters and recording videos of themselves dancing as well.

She achieved what she set out to do to create a sisterhood of unrepentant girls that supports others. Through the Rollettes, she made a tight circle of friends, performed across the country, and highlighted support spaces for women with disabilities while building her own. In January, she and her husband, Jason Bloomfield, a financial advisor, became parents and named their daughter, Jaelyn Jean Bloomfield.

Ms Hill is aware that people view businesses like hers as charities, unable to recognize the Rollettes in terms of success. “I have these older men that I have to convince that my business is worth something,” she said.

But she perseveres anyway. She has ambitious plans for the future of the Rollettes and wants to continue sharing her personal story. She was even asked to be a consultant on a new dance drama film. under development by Disney“Grace,” which is expected to feature a dancer who becomes paralyzed.

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 seems like yet another retelling of Ms. Hill’s story.

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David B.Otero

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