Disability Advocate Chelsie Hill Has the *Best* Advice for Fending Off Fitness Class Intimidation

When Chelsie Hill was in a car accident at age 17, her “whole world flipped upside down,” she says. A spinal cord injury left her paralyzed from the waist down, but as a lifelong dancer, she refused to let the fact that she was in a wheelchair get in the way of her passion. So two years later, in 2012, she started a wheelchair dance team called “The Rollettes.”

Hill connected with a group of women through social media who, like her, were in wheelchairs and wanted to dance. “I wanted to meet girls like me and find friends... I wanted just to feel a sense of normalcy, and feel like I wasn’t the only person in my community or the world who got in the car with a drunk driver or became paralyzed,” she says. “When you’re by yourself, and you’re alone, and you’re trying to figure out life, it can be very lonely—it can feel like you’re the only one. And for me, being around these girls helped me gain a sense of confidence that I never thought I would ever get.”

In the near-decade since the Rollettes conception, the group has performed worldwide, introduced the “Boundless Babes Society” mentorship program to connect women and girls living with a range of disabilities, and grown its platform to increase visibility for people with disabilities. “I have so many little ones who come to Rollettes Experience, and they look on TV, and they don’t see anybody like themselves,” says Hill. “And so for us, representation and education are the two biggest things that we’re very passionate about in every way.” Hill’s role as the team choreographer allowed her to take the dance moves she loved when she was younger and make them accessible to people with differing abilities.

“I love going to dance classes and adopting the choreography from an able-bodied choreographer to make it work for me,” she says. “That’s when I get the most creative because I am forced to do moves that my body naturally wouldn’t know how to do... but I can translate them in a way that looks similar because my body is used to all of the moves from when I was a little girl. That’s kind of the advantage I have as a wheelchair dancer: I know how all these moves are as an [able-bodied person], so I just make them work for what my ability is now.”

Even with decades of experience under her belt, though, Hill is no stranger to the oh-so-relatable experience of entering a dance or workout class and immediately feeling intimidated—something many of us can relate to. “I was always so intimidated to go into any class, especially in Los Angeles with some of the top dancers in the industry, top choreographers and me and my wheelchair rolling in and people looking at me like, ‘What is she doing here? Does she know where she is?’” she says. “So I can totally empathize with that feeling of not feeling like you’re ready.”

Instead of letting this get in the way of her desire to dance, though, she found ways to make herself feel more comfortable entering an unfamiliar space. “My biggest suggestion would be to find a friend who also wants to go to those classes... That’s something that really helped me in the beginning: I would find the Rollettes and be like, “Hey, I would love for you to like, come, let’s go take this class together.’ Thay way, it wasn’t just me people were staring at—it was both of us, and that kind of alleviated the pressure,” she says.

And as far as nailing the choreography goes? “Take it one step at a time. Don’t look at the whole choreography and think, ‘This is so fast,’ or listen to the song and go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the fastest song ever,’ because that will psych you out mentally,” she says. “Brinn Nicole, one of the choreographers I work with, always says, ‘Slow the music in your head’... and that’s been huge advice for me as a dancer in the industry.”

One thing that’s clear? Hill won’t let anything get in the way of her doing what she loves, and with her advice, neither should you.

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