(CBS News) — You’ve heard of the Rockettes, but have you heard of the Rollettes – a dance troupe of women in wheelchairs? The Los Angeles-based group was founded by Chelsie Hill, who always wanted to be a dancer, and wasn’t going to let her paralysis stop her.
“When I was a senior in high school, I got into a car with a friend who was drinking and we ended up hitting a tree head-on,” Hill told CBS News. “Going home from the hospital and having everything basically different, the only thing that I loved was dance.” She decided that despite the tragedy, she was going to continue doing what she loved.
She danced with her high school team in her wheelchair, and when she graduated, she was inspired to show other girls with disabilities they could dance, too.
“I found this group of girls on social media who all had spinal cord injuries and I invited them to my hometown to dance with me. It was such an amazing experience,” she said. The group put on a show in Monterey, California, where Hill grew up, and the Rollettes were born.
In 2014, Hill decided to move the whole company to Los Angeles, where there is a larger population of wheelchair users. She said group members find each other through social media. Right now, there are six dancers on the team who perform competitively together.
Not only does Hill coordinate this small group of dancers, but every year she holds a dance camp for women around the world. Last year, 115 wheelchair dancers attended the camp, she said. Girls of all ages attend the camp and learn how to dance in their chairs.
“The next generation of young women in wheelchairs — the kids that are born with spina bifida, the kids that get injured at a young age — it’s because of them that I’m like, ‘I want to fight so hard now to do what is right for us women in chairs,'” Hill said. “I want to break down the stereotype of wheelchair users and show that dance is dance whether you’re walking or you’re rolling.”
When Hill opened the dance camp to kids in 2017, she said her perspective changed. She realized the company was even more important than she thought. “It was honestly the most incredible feeling that I’ve had, being able to teach young kids how to dance,” she said.
Hill said interest in the Rollettes has expanded, and she is now hearing from mothers of boys who use wheelchairs. “I started it as girls because I just wanted to make friends, but it has expanded in the past year to guys,” she said.
“I want them to give the strength and confidence to go out and dance and audition and let them know it’s OK to be different,” Hill said of her young students.
For Hill, it’s not just about teaching others the art of dance, it’s about giving them a space where they feel like they belong. “I had a girl say it was the most empowering thing that she rolled into a room and everyone was at eye-level,” the dancer said. “I never thought of that because I built this community in L.A. for myself and all my best friends in chairs. It’s a normal thing for us here. But I forget people that get injured and get diagnosed and they feel like outcasts.”
“I want people to come into that room feeling so normal, so empowered so that they can go out in the world and conquer anything,” Hill said.