The Women in Wheelchairs Changing the World of Competitive Dance
"Growing up, I never had someone I could look up to who was in wheelchair. Everything was always about able-bodied people, so now to be able to be [a role model] for others is beautiful."
All photos courtesy the LA Rollettes
The LA Rollettes playfully tousle their hair and blow kisses to their reflections. They spin around the dance floor at Evolution Dance Studios in North Hollywood in wheels that light up like confetti, creating a triangle line formation in preparation for a new round of choreography set to Dua Lipa's "Blow Yo Mind (Mwah)" and Lady Gaga's "Applause."
Six women make up the wheelchair dance team, founded by Chelsie Hill in 2012, two years after a car accident paralyzed her from her waist down. Hill works to amplify the movements and postures of her fellow dancers to create visually stunning tableaus. "Think of the balcony scene from 'Romeo and Juliet,'" she instructs the other members, prompting the troupe to propel their arms into the air and maximize the space around them. Members Edna Serrano and Samantha Lopez follow Hill's movements, raising their arms as high as they can.
Decked out in a green Adidas shirt with black track pants, Hill then fastens her high ponytail and performs a wheelie by lifting the front of her wheelchair and balancing on the back wheels, making it look like she's floating around a curve. She cranks up the volume before rehearsing a hip-hop routine she learned from choreographers G Madison and Cedric Botelho.
The members of LA Rollettes, all of whom have sustained various spinal cord injuries, have assembled at these studios every Tuesday to practice hip hop routines, chat about their lives, and absorb the latest choreography from YouTube and Instagram.
"I want to show that it doesn't matter if you are walking or rolling, dance is still dance," Hill told Broadly. "Yes, we're about being fun and lighthearted and following your dreams, but we're also about excellence and superior dancing and fighting to be the best we can."
Raised in Monterey, California, Hill has been a competitive dancer for as long as she can remember. Her parents enrolled her in dance classes at the age of three; by five she was participating in competitions. But in high school, her dancing career was put on hold after a serious car accident.
In 2010, Hill was out with friends when she got into the car of a driver who'd been drinking; she had to work the next morning and believed, mistakenly, that her friend would be able to get her home safely. After the car hit a tree head on, Hill was rushed to a hospital. Initially, she didn't understand the severity of the injuries. "When the doctor told me I was never going to walk again, I was just kind of like, 'I don't believe that.'"
During the first year of recovery, Hill focused on becoming independent and regaining a sense of stability in her life. Around this time, a group of fellow young women in wheelchairs at her high school taught her a dance routine. "That was when I was kind of like, I can still dance. I felt [the] same way."
Hill also began looking into how dance competitions were run and realized that spaces for dancers in wheelchairs were mostly nonexistent.
Wheelchair dancing — also known as para-dance sport in the context of the Paralympics — likely originated in Sweden in 1968. There, Els Britt Larsson was one of its first breakout stars. Over the years, the sport has expanded. Infinite Flow, based in Los Angeles, is one of the largest professional wheelchair ballroom dance companies in the US. The company, formed in 2015, aims to promote inclusivity and break barriers. AXIS Dance Company, which was founded in 1987 in Oakland, California, also includes both "able-bodied and disabled performers."
However, Hill found that the world of dance generally favors the able-bodied. According to the paper, "Disability and the Dancing Body: Ownership, Identity and Difference in Dance," published in the journal Scripted in 2015, those with disabilities are marginalized because dance purists cling to rigid ideas about what's aesthetically pleasing onstage. "Inequality persists because the trained dancer and their 'ballet bodies" continue to dictate what dance is," the authors write. "In short, the presence of the disabled dancer is affected by the perception of what constitutes 'real' dance."
Hill received a crash course in other people's prejudices after she was featured in the Sundance reality TV show "Push Girls," which focused on the stories of four women with disabilities in Los Angeles. After receiving degrading comments online from people saying she wasn't really dancing, just "moving her arms around," she learned to ignore the trolls, and became more determined to continue dancing.
After the show aired, Hill met with other female wheelchair dancers and decided to put together a dance showcase in her hometown of Monterey. She contacted interested wheelchair dancers and noticed there was a need and growing interest in the community. In 2014, she moved to LA to pursue wheelchair dance on a larger stage and grow the LA Rollettes dance team, originally named "Team Hotwheelz."
Their performances and social media presence have proven tantalizing to news outlets. Most recently, the team was featured on LA's local news station, KTLA5. Hill also appeared alongside Josh Killacky on the Ellen Show.
More than providing a space to dance, the troupe has become a close-knit community. Samantha Lopez, who has been involved with the LA Rollettes for about three years, was injured five years ago after a traumatic fall from her third story apartment building. "[I] stood up on the bed to close the window, tripped and went through the screen which is about 30 feet," she says. "My sister held onto my ankle but I slipped and broke my back."
Lopez strokes the tattoo on her arm, a feather with the word, "believe." She tells me she decided on the emblem shortly after her injury as a reminder of what she has overcome. As a show of support, both her aunt and uncle decided on similar tattoos.
Lopez had been looking for a safe space where she could be around women who had been through similar experiences. She first joined to work through feelings of depression and isolation. Dancing in a chair has freed her from some of the anxieties she felt about dancing before her accident. "I was scared of failing, I was scared of just how intimidating it is, and so I never pursued it," said Lopez. She added that the girls at the LA Rollettes have changed the way people view the abilities of wheelchair dancers as a whole, and opened up doors for those with disabilities who are looking for a supportive dance community. "It puts an end to questions I might have had when I was able-bodied," said Lopez.
"[We've] shown both able-bodied and wheelchair dancers that dance is possible at this level."
While most of the women in LA Rollettes sustained injuries, Edna Serrano was born with a neuroblastoma tumor on her back. When doctors removed the tumor, her spinal cord was affected and she was paralyzed from the waist down.
"Growing up, I never had someone I could look up to who was in wheelchair. Everything was always about able-bodied people, so now to be able to be [a role model] for others is beautiful," said Serrano.
Serrano says the LA Rollettes is the best thing in her life and that other members of the group have become her "entire world." The team has not only helped her not only to dance, but to become independent and self-confident, she said. "We might not dance with the feet, but we dance with the heart and that's way more important."
The LA Rollettes will be touring through August 2018, leading dance intensives in Boston, D.C., New York, and Chicago as well as presenting an award in Warsaw, Poland for Miss Wheelchair World.
"[We've] shown both able-bodied and wheelchair dancers that dance is possible at this level," says Hill. "We want them to know that we are on the same playing field."