Degree Interrupted: A Dancer Rethinks Disability

Photo: Seji Gaerlan

This is the second essay of our three-part series, “Degree Interrupted,” in which Youth Radio reporter Brooke Reotutar interviewed college students who had non-traditional paths to higher education. Today’s story comes from Gina Marie, a student at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.

Everyone knew me as “Gina the Ballerina.”

I was 17, and my aspirations to perform professionally and tour the world were about to become a reality. I ran a dance studio, had accepted a university scholarship to dance in London, and worked with the American Ballet Theater in New York. I had a plan.

Then, a twist of fate: a terrible accident. A collapsed building structure left me with a compression injury to my spine, a broken tailbone, mild head injury and herniated discs in the cervical and lumbar areas. I was told I would need to use a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

There are different stages that people deal with grief. For a long time I put everything on hold, waiting like a video on pause.

I kept thinking I would go back to life as I knew it and be “Gina the Ballerina” again. When that didn’t happen overnight, I went through a long period of shock. It took time for me to come to terms with the outcome of the accident. I thought my dreams of being a dancer were over.

Photo: Seji Gaerlan

Then, I was checking class offerings at Palomar College for a friend, and something inside me reignited. I realized I still deserved the opportunity to be creative, but I needed to find new ways to express that creativity. So, I enrolled.

A wonderful dance teacher at the college noticed my passion for ballet, approached me and said, “I want you to join my class.” I was in awe. I looked down at my wheelchair. The thought of attending an entire dance class again had never crossed my mind. I eagerly took her offer and it changed my life.

Wheelchair dancing is now one of the many ways I have shaped my new identity. I once saw my wheelchair as a deterrent to my dancing. Now. I’ve learned to embrace this new reality.

Present day, I partake in theater and dance productions. Proudly, I help plan an adapted, integrated dance education workshop sponsored by the dance department and enthusiastically supported by the Disability Resource Center.

As for the future, I hope to transfer and inspire others to see how passion can transcend life’s toughest obstacles. Each one of us has challenges to face. Mine just happens to be visible.







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