Give Chelsie Hill lemons, she’ll make lemonade. Put her in a wheelchair? She’ll dance. Most Peninsulans know Hill’s tragic story: a bright and beautiful Pacific Grove High senior, she awoke in a Santa Clara trauma center paralyzed from the waist down after a horrendous alcohol-related automobile accident.
“Dance is the only thing my daughter has ever wanted to do,” says Chelsie’s mother Wendy Hill. And she excelled at it. A driven, gifted natural athlete, Hill won her first competition at the age of five. She kept on winning through her tenure with P.G. High’s Breaker Girls Dance Team, turning in stellar performances. So, lying in that hospital bed, with no sensation in her graceful gazelle legs, she was shattered to learn her lifelong dream of a professional dance career was over.
But it wasn’t. While recovering, she saw a video of another wheel-chair bound woman. That woman was dancing.
Hill didn’t dwell on her fate. Though still learning how to navigate her suddenly and stunningly altered world, she began speaking to other teens about the bad choices that put her in a car with an inebriated driver. She’s a compelling speaker—and a sobering sight, alone in her wheelchair, spotlighted on a gym floor. Her message is clear: this could be you.
Auti Angel was the woman in that video. She’s been in her chair for 20 years. Prior to the accident that put her there, she was a professional dancer and choreographer, performing with hip-hop artists N.W.A, Kid ‘n Play and LL Cool J. She’d landed a Columbia/Ruffhouse Records recording contract as part of an all-female hip-hop group.
“When I saw Auti in that video, I knew I was going to dance again,” Hill says. The two met at a fundraiser just nine months after Hill’s accident. She introduced herself and related how profoundly inspired she had been by that video. The pair immediately bonded. “Chelsie reminded me of me when I first got injured,” Angel says. “I saw myself in her. We have a like-minded heart and soul and a passion for dance and doing good for humanity.”
And Hill found a mentor. “Auti took me under her wing,” Hill says.
Angel founded Colours ‘n’ Motion, a hip-hop wheelchair dance group, in 2003. “I invited Chelsie to my house in North Hollywood to watch team member Mia Schaikewitz and I rehearse,” she recalls. While there, Angel had Hill audition. “I could see right away she had the gift of dance. I immediately asked her to join the team.”
Schaikewitz and Angel had been palling around with two other disabled L.A.-area women, Angela Rockwood and Tiphany Adams. “We’ve been solid friends for four years,” Angel says. These are some determined, driven and talented women: Rockwood is a model and actress; Adams also pursued acting and is now focused on becoming a fitness instructor and developing a clothing line called “Wheely Famous.” Schaikewitz works for a graphic design and branding firm in Los Angeles.
The quartet bonded around their mutual refusal to accept that they would have to give up their dreams merely because a twist of fate confined them to wheelchairs. “Angela always had a vision that powerful women in wheelchairs can excel,” says Angel. And so the seeds of “Push Girls” were planted.
“Push Girls” was initially conceived as a reality show chronicling the lives, loves and careers of those four women. But then Chelsie Hill rolled up. “We introduced Chelsie to [show producer] Gay Rosenthal,” Angel says. “We thought she would be a natural fit as a supporting character with her message to teens about drunk driving.”
Hill debuted on “Push Girls” July 9. “When I saw my daughter on the screen, I got chills,” Wendy Hill says. “Very few people have the strength to accomplish what she has in the two years since her accident.”
With her father, Jon, Chelsie founded the Walk and Roll Foundation whose mission is, in part, “to help spinal cord injury survivors recreate their dreams, develop their talents and abilities and live a full life within their reach.”
And, oh, yeah. She’s gonna dance.
“Push Girls” is presented on the Sundance Channel on Mondays at 10pm. (Comcast Cable channel 505).