A Car Accident Paralyzed Her from the Waist Down, but That Didn’t Stop Her from Fulfilling Her Dream of Dancing

A pioneering dance troupe is proving that you can chase your dreams—even in a wheelchair.

Since the age of three, Chelsie Hill had dreamed of becoming a dancer. “The only thing that I loved was dance,” she told CBS News. That ambition nearly ended one night in 2010. Hill, then a 17-year-old high school senior in Pacific Grove, California, was in a car accident that put her in the hospital for 51 days and left her paralyzed from the waist down. For most people, that would have dashed any hope of a dancing career. For Hill, it was the beginning. Far from being an obstacle, her wheelchair emboldened her. “I wanted to prove to my community—and to myself—that I was still ‘normal,’” she told Teen Vogue. “Whatever normal meant.”

Normal for her meant dancing, so Hill did it in her wheelchair right alongside her nondisabled high school dance team. “Half of my body was taken away from me, and I have to move it with my hands,” Hill told Today. “It definitely took a lot of learning and patience.”

After graduation, Hill wanted to expand her dance network to include women like her. She met people online who had suffered various spinal cord injuries but shared her determination, and she invited them to dance with her. “It was such an amazing experience.”

Hoping to reach more people in a larger city, Hill moved to Los Angeles in 2014 and formed a team of dancers with disabilities she calls the Rollettes, a sly nod to the Rockettes. “I want to break down the stereotype of wheelchair users and show that dance is dance, whether you’re walking or you’re rolling,” she told CBS News.

Dancing on wheels, the Rollettes discovered, can be just as fast-paced, artful, and fulfilling as the foot-based variety. In disabled dance competitions around the country, the six-member team (there are also a number of auxiliary members) grooves to Selena Gomez and Ed Sheeran tunes, rocking their upper bodies, jerking their heads to syncopated beats, striking poses, and steering their wheelchairs in well-timed, dynamic, highly choreographed routines. They’re having fun, and as the audiences’ exuberant reactions indicate, the fun is contagious.

Amanda Friedman for Reader's Digest
Chelsie Hill, flanked by fellow Rollettes Samantha Lopez and Conner Lundius, wants her dancers to feel empowered.

Hill has attained what many of us never will: her childhood dream. She’s a dancer. But the Rollettes have helped her find something else just as fulfilling. Every year she holds a dance camp for wheelchair users of all ages and abilities with an eye to helping them find their inner Ginger Rogers or Julianne Hough. She calls it the Rollettes Experience, and in 2019, 173 participants from ten countries attended.

For many, it was the first time they’d felt they belonged. “I had a girl say it was the most empowering thing when she rolled into a room and every­one was at eye level,” Hill told CBS News. Steph Aiello told Teen Vogue that working with Hill challenged her to be more independent. “My injury doesn’t stop so I can live my life, so why am I going to stop living my life because of my injury?” she said.

Edna Serrano says that being part of the Rollettes team has given her the courage to get behind the wheel of a car. “I didn’t know I could do so many things that these girls have taught me,” she says. “I didn’t know I could be sexy. It’s so powerful to have [my teammates] in my life, because they’re my teachers. I have more confidence.”

The dancers aren’t the only ones feeling inspired. One woman saw a YouTube video of the team competing (google “Rollettes tournament”) and commented, “You guys are so awesome!!!! I’m in tears cuz you rock! To be in a wheelchair and still be so beautiful makes me know I can be beautiful too! Thank you! Feel free to come find me.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.