Rollettes wheelchair dance team empowers women with disabilities

The Rollettes Los Angeles Wheelchair Dance Team of 2021-22 not only performed but bonded as a group. (Photo by Victor Salazar/ victorsalzarfilms)

Learning the Macarena during a dance class is one of the many opportunities that occur during the Rollettes Experience. (Photo courtesy of Gustavo R./theblackswanstudio)

LOS ANGELES – Chelsie Hill was the young girl in the tutu who loved to dance around the house, starting classes at age 3 and dancing competitively in high school. But at 17, Hill was involved in a drunk-driving accident and sustained a spinal cord injury that resulted in paralysis from the waist down.

“The doctor told me, ‘You are not going to be able to walk,’” Hill said. “And my first response was, “Forget walking, I just want to dance.”

While feelings of devastation crept in, she would not let her accident take away the one thing she loved. Hill wanted to prove that anyone can overcome traumatic situations, and being paralyzed did not deter her from living the life she wanted to live.

Instead, her experience sparked what began as a friendship and bloomed into a community of women determined to live a life free of limitations and boundaries.

“I didn’t know anyone else with a disability,” Hill said. “So I reached out to a few girls on social media and invited them to my hometown to dance. I feel being able to show the world what you can do through social media is so amazing because we are so lucky we have that type of voice now.”

In 2012, Hill invited six girls over to her hometown in Monterey, California, to perform their first routine in front of friends, family, and the local community. Two years later, the group had evolved into the Rollettes Los Angeles, a wheelchair dance team committed to education, disability representation, and female empowerment.

The group has performed at numerous NBA games and even competed in the International Cheer Union World Championships as part of the USA national team.

“The most memorable event with the team for me was performing at a Boston Celtics game,” said Joci Scott, a member of the Rollettes Los Angeles dance team. “We literally left on a red-eye (flight), performed that night, and then left the next morning. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

The Rollettes Experience is an annual four-day in-person event that connects women of all ages through seminars and bonding activities. (Photo courtyesy of Gustavo. R/theblackswanstudio)

Hill also founded the Rollettes Experience – an annual four-day, in-person event that connects women of all ages through seminars and bonding activities – to expand the team’s network to avid and casual dancers.

“Rollettes Experience is the core of what we are,” said Conner Lundius, another member of the Rollettes LA team. “If dance is something that you’re not into at all, we have makeup seminars and panels on topics like advocacy and motherhood. It’s just about connection and community and a great way for women and girls with disabilities to be more in touch with themselves and their bodies.”

In 2019, Scott was involved in a plane crash when traveling from Ohio to Rhode Island with her family. Her dad, a pilot of 25 years, was piloting the Piper PA-46 aircraft when he had to make an emergency landing.

“It was just like a normal day for us, and something happened with the plane where we ran out of fuel inexplicably,” Scott said. “We were circling for a while, and they didn’t clear us to land. As we’re approaching the runway, my dad saw that we wouldn’t make it. He bolted the plane to the right, and we landed in a field about a mile short of the runway.”

Upon impact, Scott knew she was paralyzed. She was transported to Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, and underwent spinal fusion surgery. Scott could no longer walk and needed to relearn how to complete daily tasks at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey.

“I stayed there for six weeks to learn how to do tasks of daily living,” she said. “Like how to go to the bathroom, getting out of bed, getting dressed – things that I would need to be able to do independently.”

Facing adversity, Scott decided to join the Rollettes and credits them for providing the confidence to continue her passion for dance. She now hopes to build the same confidence in the girls she meets and serve as a role model in her community. In return, she finds inspiration through connections to teenagers like Gia, who attended the event just six months after sustaining a life-changing injury.

“She still came out and gave it all in the dance classes,” Scott said. “It was really inspiring to see her resilience, making new friends and memories.”

It takes plenty of helping hands and money to execute an event on the scale of the Rollettes Experience. During the first six years, Hill requested donations and even used personal funds to cover expenses.

“In the beginning, I would sit out on a corner and hold a sign that said, ‘Free Car Wash. Donate What You Can,’” Hill said. “It purely started with people donating. I put a lot of money into it when we had to cover other things for the first six years.”

Today, the group relies heavily on sponsorships and donors to fund its events. A GoFundMe page for the 2022 Rollettes Experience had been posted to raise a goal of $20,000 before the event started on July 21.

“I realized in 2018 when we had 115 women and children that showed up from 12 countries that this was needed, and this was so much bigger than me,” Hill said. “I never want money to be why someone can’t attend something like this because it is life-changing for people in so many different ways.”

For criminal justice student Mya Hedrix, this experience was indeed life-changing.

In April of 2018, after struggling with drug addiction for five years, Hedrix found herself in a horrific situation after receiving a call from a friend asking for assistance.

“When I went to help, I was set up and kidnapped,” Hedrix said. “I was held for ransom for 24 hours, and then I was shot three times and left at Sunset Cliffs near the Pacific Ocean.

“When you’re in that lifestyle, you are surrounded by people and actions that aren’t always the best things.”

The three captors demanded $2,500 from Hedrix’s mother before shooting and throwing her at the bottom of Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, California. She lay in ocean water for four hours before authorities found her with a ruptured spine at the C5 and C6 vertebrae in her neck.

As a C5 and C6 quadriplegic, Hedrix used social media as a tool to cope during her recovery. Videos of her smiling and dancing found a way to Hill, who invited her to the 2019 Rollettes Experience.

“I was posting my recovery journey, and Chelsea’s mom ran into one of my videos on Instagram,” Hedrix said. “I think it was a video of me trying to do the Macarena in the hospital, so I flew out to my first Rollettes Experience. I rolled into a room of 175 women in wheelchairs at eye level with me, and it was one of the most amazing feelings that I’ve had in my life.”

This feeling was a sign that Hedrix had found a new family.

A few months later, she joined the Lil Sis program, designed to recruit talent to the Rollettes team. The Lil Sis are women who have become leaders in their community under the leadership of the Rollettes.

Through the years, Rollettes has inspired countless people like Hedrix from all over the world. The dance team’s message to live without boundaries and limitations has spread like wildfire to help lift the hearts and hopes of younger girls regardless of their hardships.

“I think it’s important for everyone to always have someone they feel represents them,” Hedrix said. “It can be a real struggle when you’re not seeing people with disabilities in the media or even in your community. Rolling into that room and seeing all of the women having fun and still being able to live their lives after being disabled is one of the most inspiring things.”

Aayush Gupta(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aayush Gupta expects to graduate in spring 2023 with bachelor’s degrees in sports business and sports journalism. Gupta has interned with the Phoenix Business Journal.