Chelsie Hill always imagined a career as a professional dancer — she just didn’t know she would be in a wheelchair once she got there.
At 17 years old, Hill was part of her high school dance team and had been dancing competitively for more than a decade. She was three months away from graduation in Pacific Grove, California when she got into a car accident with a group of friends, leaving Hill paralyzed from the belly button down.
In an instant, everything changed. Suddenly Hill, now 25, couldn’t move — let alone dance — like she used to.
“In the beginning, I thought, well, when someone breaks a bone, they heal,” she told TODAY of the weeks after her accident. “It takes a little bit, but they get back to their life. I didn’t really understand the extent of what had happened (to me). I knew there was a car accident, and the doctor said, ‘You’re not going to be able to walk again,’ but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know what the future looked like.”
Hill spent 51 days in the hospital, but it took much longer for reality to sink in: The doctor was right. But while Hill was starting to realize she wouldn’t ever walk again, she refused to give up dance.
“When it first happened, I was like, ‘OK, how am I going to get dressed? How am I going to do this?'” she said. “But I always knew I would dance again.”
Two years after she was released from the hospital, she organized a dance showcase with some women she had met in the wheelchair community, and from there, the idea for a wheelchair dance team was born.
She launched the Rollettes (formerly known as Walk and Roll, and before that, Team Hot Wheels) in 2012. The group of six women performs across the country at various abilities festivals and expos, and will dance at the upcoming Wings for Life World Run in Santa Clarita, California, which raises funds for spinal cord research.
Hill, who also appeared on SundanceTV’s reality show “Push Girls,” considers the crew “family” and often leads practice each week, teaching new choreography or training for an upcoming performance.
“I have built my whole life these last seven years basically normalizing my situation,” Hill said. “Of course I’m still in touch with friends from before the accident, but my favorite part about this team is knowing that I have a group of girls who are my best friends, my sisters. Being able to travel with them and not feeling different.”
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On social media, the Rollettes show off moves to hits from Selena Gomez and Ed Sheeran — they even experiment with burlesque and ballroom dance. The women jerk, sway or rock their upper bodies, and use their hands to swerve their wheelchairs or, in one case, “shuffle” to the beat of LMFAO’s “Party Rock.”
Dancing is “second nature” to Hill, but learning how to move in a chair was entering a whole new world.
“Half of my body was taken away from me and I have to move it with my hands now,” Hill said. “It definitely took a lot of learning and patience.”
Five years later, Hill has accepted her new normal. In fact, she embraces it.
“Of course there are things I miss being able to feel — leaps and kicks and backflips,” Hill said. “But when I’m performing, I still feel the same rush that I used to. And when I go on stage, I don’t feel my chair. I don’t feel different. I’m just dancing, and that’s where my heart is.”