If you have a spinal cord injury, chances are you’ve heard of Chelsie Hill. Paralyzed almost 10 years ago in a drunk driving accident as a passenger, she became T12 paraplegic as a result. Shortly afterwards, at 18 years old, Chelsie went on to star in the Sundance channel’s groundbreaking docuseries Push Girls, helping connect her to other prominent women in the spinal cord injury community. Chelsie however is now more well-known for her #1 passion – wheelchair dance.
The Beginning of the Rollettes
A lifelong dancer, Chelsie was devastated after her injury. She wanted to dance again but didn’t think she would enjoy it sitting down. After doing some research and seeing it was indeed possible, she tried it; giving it her own pop ’n lock spin. Thrilled she could still enjoy dance, Chelsie formed a dance team exclusively for wheelchair-users, calling it the Rollettes. “I started the Rollettes in 2012 shortly after my injury because I just really wanted to dance again and have friends that understood what I was going through.”
Since she formed the team, the Rollettes have become internationally renowned. They’ve been featured on The Ellen Show, The Today Show and the Hallmark Channel. The Rollettes are also viral on social media often thanks to their “Be Boundless” campaign, and their wheelchair-dance videos on TikTok. Over the years, Chelsie’s close-knit team has bonded in a unique way that only other wheelchair-users understand.
Creating the Annual “Rollettes Experience”
Knowing how amazing this bond is, Chelsie created the “Rollettes Experience” to bring the sense of community and once-in-a-lifetime dance experience to other female wheelchair-users across the globe. “When the Rollettes Experience first started we did two dance camps a year,” says Chelsie. “It was small and there were a few girls that I connected with over social media that would all come together and that’s really how the dance team started. Now the Rollettes Experience is once a year here in LA.”
In non-pandemic times, the Rollettes Experience is a 4-day in-person event full of dance classes, workshops, time to hang out and get to know women from all over the world. “The best part about our in-person event is that everyone stays in the same hotel and it’s like one massive 4-day slumber party,” adds Chelsie. This year, however, the Rollette’s Experience had to be altered due to COVID-19, with them ultimately deciding to make the event 100% virtual.
COVID and Going Virtual
Chelsie says, “It was really up in the air for a while. We kept planning our in-person event as we normally do and kept our ears glued to the news to see what our mayor would allow. Our event is usually in July or August so starting in May this year we really knew we’d have to probably make some changes. And as mid-May came, we just moved everything virtually. We had no idea how we were going to do it, but we knew it was the safest option.”
When LA shut back down again in July, Chelsie and her team were relieved they didn’t try to make it happen. “It just would not have been what was best for our attendees and we knew that.” The Rollettes decided to set the date for the virtual Rollettes Experience on Oct. 10 & Oct. 11 and despite a few snags, they had over 300 attendees. The best part – they’ve received amazing feedback from attendees.
“The biggest thing the planning team all kept in mind was how do we create that powerful feeling of connectedness and empowerment that we normally have at our in-person events through a computer? We wanted to find creative ways to help everyone connect. One of the highlights of our in-person event is our big PJ party. That changed a lot this year, but everything else we really tried to keep the same. Our attendees connected so much through the chat and everyone still got that experience of connection and empowerment.”
“The speakers and panels worked out really well. We brought them in from separate virtual rooms into our main room with all of the attendees and that seemed to work out really well,” describes Chelsie. The dance classes I think were just different since normally you have the energy of everyone in one room and the choreographer can make corrections more easily. Dancing is all about being together, but I think we achieved that.”
It may have been harder for the team to plan the virtual Rollettes Experience, but they say it was worth it. “Getting to RE20 Virtual Live was a big mess. There were some really long days. It’s been a struggle logistically, financially and emotionally for all the attendees that were looking forward to seeing each other. But if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that things will come out of left field. We created an amazing event in just 3 months that really changed lives and we will keep doing it as long as the finances make sense.”
Feedback from Attendees
As for feedback from attendees, it has been overly-positive. “We have known that Rollettes Experience is a really special place for women in wheelchairs to connect and feel normal but especially during 2020, when people are feeling more isolated than ever, we didn’t really expect our attendees to have such a strong reaction and feeling to the event. Some attendees said after hearing the speakers they felt like they could dream again” says Chelsie.
“Other attendees danced after getting injured for the first time at our event. And other attendees, who had never been able to connect with other wheelchair-users before, just took a leap of faith in attending and made many new friends. The internet can be a dark place, but for us at Rollettes Corp, it’s been a beautiful tool to connect women with disabilities that may never get the opportunity otherwise. It’s allowed us to connect hundreds of women together from all over the world.”
– Learn more: Rollettes Experience