“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 beyond the stage, in the emotions she conveys, in her power to hold the audience. Her wheelchair is an intrinsic part of her silhouette, one that she manipulates with power.
Ms. Hill, 31, is the founder of rollettesa dance team for women who use wheelchairs that formed in 2012. They perform across the country and host an annual empowerment weekend in Los Angeles for women with disabilities called 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, exhibitions and seminars.
More than a decade after she founded the Rollettes, Ms. Hill’s story has extended far beyond the group and includes mentoring and education for anyone with a disability looking for community.
“She changed my life,” said Ali Stroker, the actress who made Broadway history in 2019 when she became the first wheelchair-bound performer to win a Tony Award. Stroker, one of Hill’s close friends, won the Tony for best supporting 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 2, said that growing up she never had friends who also used chairs. Hill, she said, is changing lives by extending an invitation to wheelchair users that goes beyond dancing.
“Because of her, so many young women who were injured recently had their lives changed,” Ms. Stroker said. “It’s more than dancing. You are part of this brotherhood, this family. “How it 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 a way she never could have imagined when a serious car accident left her with serious spinal injuries and unable to move her lower body.
Hill has always felt compelled to share her story, framing it as a warning. When she was a teenager trying to become a professional dancer, she was tormented by the decisions she 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.
“I was passionate about teens understanding that someone can go from walking to not walking after making the wrong decision,” Ms. Hill said.
Growing up in Monterey County, Northern California, Ms. Hill’s early life was defined by a sense of security and belonging that she said made her feel invincible. She began competing in dance competitions when she was 5 years old.
“It’s hard to know how good a 5-year-old is, but every year I always won a trophy and made my family proud,” he said.
As a practical and physics student, she found it more difficult to concentrate on academics. Dance, she said, was her world and her priority.
When she was a freshman, she had a group of friends already formed in her high school’s popular dance team, The Breaker Girls. “There’s something about dancing when you’re on a team: You’re very in sync 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, gathered wheelchairs from all over Northern California and brought them to a studio with his able-bodied dance team.
“They all sat in the chairs and I was able to perform with them,” he said.
Carina Bernier, one of Hill’s close friends who was also a part of Breaker Girls, remembers that it was “really hard to understand, but really cool and fun.” Ms. Hill, she added, helped the group choreograph the routine that day.
But for a long time after the accident, Ms. Hill denied her injury.
“I always thought it would be that miracle that gets up and walks again, like you see in the movies,” he said.
Still, in the years after the accident, she returned to dance and finally came to accept the reality of her injuries. She came to understand that she had gone from someone who didn’t struggle to fit in to someone who now had a visible difference.
“I felt a sense of being as alone as 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, healthy, middle-class white 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 them,” he said, adding, “It’s made me a stronger person. It has turned me into a critical thinker. It has turned me into an innovator. But it’s still difficult, you know?
Reclaiming her history as a dancer and wheelchair user meant finding others like her. Her first step was when she joined the cast of “Push Girls,” an unscripted reality 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 I said to: ‘How do I wear heels? How do I get out? How do I place my seat in the car? How can I live a normal life as a young woman with a disability? “They all taught me how to do that.”
In some corners, however, the program was criticized for its superficial treatment of people with disabilities. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote that the premiere episode fell into “Go Girl” mode and used “a subtly degrading tone.”
But on a personal level, for Hill, the program taught her to have “a thick skin from a very young age.” She loved every moment, she said, “even the hard times.”
In 2014, four years after her accident, 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 person with a disability,” she said. “People looked at me like I didn’t belong. “The choreographers didn’t even give me the time of day.”
But she continued attending classes, she said, “because I thought, ‘My passion for dance is much stronger than your opinion of me.’”
As a performer, Hill makes extensive use of social media, recording her dances, making concept videos, and vlogging. Many of the women who are now Rollettes initially approached her after seeing her online, writing letters and recording videos of themselves dancing as well.
She has accomplished what she set out to do: create an unrepentant sisterhood that supports others. Through the Rollettes, she has made a close circle of friends, performed across the country, and highlighted support spaces for disabled women while she built 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, unable to recognize Rollettes through the lens of success. “I have older men I have to convince that my company is worth something,” she said.
But still, she perseveres. She has ambitious plans for the future of Rollettes and is keen to continue sharing her personal story. She was even asked to be a consultant on a new dance drama film. being developed by Disney“Grace,” which will 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 sounds like another remake of Ms. Hill’s story.