Life, Interrupted: The Dance Teacher

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Why you should care

Because if groove is in the soul, then dance you shall.

When Chelsea Libitzki was 4 years old, she picked up her first pair of ballet slippers in her mom’s dance studio, the Libitzki School of Dance, in the small town of Ellsworth, Maine. “Dancing has always played a huge part in my life,” Chelsea says. “It’s always been an escape … something that I can focus on instead of daily life.”

Chelsea was just one in a family of Libitzki dancers — she grew up dancing alongside her two sisters, and admiring her mother and aunt as they taught beside each other. Chelsea began teaching as an assistant at the studio when she was in seventh grade, and continued to pirouette her way through high school.

But on her 22nd birthday, everything changed. “I was hanging out with friends that night, and things got out of hand. My designated driver situation had changed, and we hit a tree and telephone pole.” The 22-year-old broke her C4 vertebra, which is a spinal cord injury that means different things in different situations. For Chelsea, it meant that she was paralyzed from the chest down.

Every spinal cord injury is different, so people didn’t really know.

Chelsea Libitzki

“When I first got hurt, I felt like my doctors didn’t necessarily tell me what my future was going to look like. Every spinal cord injury is different, so people didn’t really know,” Chelsea explains. But she had one nurse who was more matter-of-fact, telling her she’d never walk again. “At that moment, my heart totally sank.”

After one week in the intensive care unit and six weeks at Eastern Maine Medical Center, in Bangor, Chelsea spent three and a half months in Atlanta at Shepherd Center, learning about what her life would be like. “‘The new normal’ is what they told me,” she says, noting how she had to relearn how to live her life.

“I had been a certain way up until that point, and within a matter of seconds, my life completely changed,” Chelsea says. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, this is what your life is going to be like now. You can either choose to move forward and figure out what it is you’re meant to do, or you could be miserable and stay in bed all day.’”

Frustrated at first by the thought of never dancing again, Chelsea gradually learned how dance could remain very much a part of her world. She now teaches alongside her mother, sister and aunt at her mother’s dance studio. If she needs help, she’s able to ask someone to demonstrate for her, but it’s Chelsea who’s in charge of teaching the Vaganova syllabus, including the building blocks of ballet.

These moves don’t necessarily require being demonstrated, which makes it possible for Chelsea to teach ballet through her knowledge and experience. “I think that by having me as a dance teacher, [students] are also learning a valuable lesson. People can do whatever they put their mind to, and things aren’t always what they seem.”

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