“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
When Chelsie Hill dances in her wheelchair, her face tells you everything. She is absorbed in the moment beyond the stage, in the emotions she’s conveying, in her power to hold the audience. Her wheelchair is an intrinsic part of her silhouette, one she manipulates with power.
Ms. Hill, 27, is the founder of the Rollettes, a dance team for women who use wheelchairs that formed in 2012. They perform all over 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 Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel for dance classes, showcases and seminars.
More than a decade after she started the Rollettes, Ms. Hill’s story has spread far beyond the group to include mentorship and education for anyone with a disability who is 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 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 years old, said that, growing up, she never had friends who also used chairs. Ms. Hill, she said, is changing lives by extending an invitation to wheelchair users that goes beyond dance.
“Because of her, so many young girls who are recently injured, their lives are changed,” Ms. Stroker said. “It’s more than dancing. You’re part of this sisterhood, this family. How she can bring people together is out of this world.”
Nearly 14 years ago, Ms. Hill was a 17-year-old champion dancer. But on a 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 unable to move her lower body.
Ms. Hill has always felt compelled to share her story, framing it as a warning. As a teenager intent on becoming a professional dancer, she was haunted by the decisions made on the evening she stepped into the car with a drunken driver. She told her parents from a hospital bed a few weeks after the accident that she wanted to organize an event to discuss it with her classmates.
“I was passionate about having teenagers understand that someone could go from walking to not after making a wrong decision,” Ms. Hill said.
Growing up in Northern California’s Monterey County, 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.
“It’s hard to tell 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, she found concentrating on academics more difficult. 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 about dance when you’re on a team, you’re just so 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 around 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, one of Ms. Hill’s close friends who was also part of the Breaker Girls, recalls it being “really challenging to figure out but so cool and so fun.” Ms. Hill, she added, helped the group choreograph the routine that day.
But for a long time after the accident, Ms. Hill was in denial about her injury.
“I always thought that I would be that miracle that gets up and walks again, like you see in the movies,” she said.
Even so, in the years after the accident, she threw herself back into dance and eventually came to accept the realities of her injuries. She came to understand that she had gone from being someone who didn’t struggle to fit in to someone who now had a visible difference.
“I felt a sense of being so alone in a way that I never, never had before,” she said.
Becoming a person with a disability, and understanding herself as such, radicalized Ms. Hill, she said. Until her accident, as a white, middle-class, able-bodied young woman, she had not really understood or recognized the fights 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’s made me an innovator. But it’s still hard, 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 program about a group of ambitious women who use wheelchairs in 2011, a year after her accident. The show broadcast 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 who I’d be like, ‘How do I wear heels? How do I date? How do I get my chair in the car? How do I live a normal life as a young girl with a disability?’ They all taught me how to do that.”
In some corners, though, the show was criticized for its shallow treatment of people with disabilities. A critic for The New York Times wrote that the premiere episode lapsed into “You go, girl” mode, and that it used “a tone that subtly demeans.”
But on a personal level, for Ms. Hill, the show taught her to have a “thick skin at a very 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 hard breaking into the industry here in Los Angeles as a person with a disability,” she said. “People looked at me like I didn’t belong. Choreographers didn’t give me the time of day.”
But she kept going to classes, she said, “because I was like, ‘My passion for dance is so much stronger than what your opinion of me is.’”
As a performer, Ms. Hill makes extensive use of social media, recording her dancing, making concept videos and vlogging. Many of the women who are now Rollettes initially reached out to her after having seen her online, writing letters and recording videos of themselves dancing, too.
She has achieved what she set out to do, creating an unrepentantly girlie sisterhood that supports others. Through the Rollettes, she has made a tight circle of friends, performed around the country, and highlighted support spaces for women with disabilities while building her own. In January, she and her husband, Jason Bloomfield, a financial adviser, became new parents, naming their daughter, Jaelyn Jean Bloomfield.
Ms. Hill is aware that people view businesses like hers as charities, unable to acknowledge 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 still, she perseveres. She has ambitious plans for the future of the Rollettes and is keen to continue sharing her personal story. She has even been asked to be a consultant on a new dance drama film being developed by Disney, “Grace,” which is set 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 sounds like yet another retelling of Ms. Hill’s story.