A vehicle operated by a hit-and-run driver changed her life but salsa dancing became the vehicle by which she reclaimed her personal power.
Two of Julie Berger’s students, Darren Hepke and Kristen Gilia, turned to salsa dancing after undergoing traumatic experiences that changed their perspectives about life. Salsa dancing was revitalizing on multiple levels, helping with their overall well-being and energizing their spirit.
The ever-athletic Darren was regaining his strength and coordination after a spinal cord injury left him temporarily paralyzed. Kristen was looking for a fun activity with a low-risk of injury after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a street. They both found salsa dancing invigorating and inspiring as they recovered from serious injuries.
It’s been about four years since Bryn Mawr’s Darren Hepke, 26, a three-sport athlete, added salsa dancing to his list of accomplishments. He enjoyed the mental challenge of learning new moves that require hand and foot coordination. There were also the physical benefits of dancing in addition to the social aspect of meeting new people in a fun atmosphere.
“It was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Hepke said. But a tag football game on Dec. 9, 2012, would give him the scare of his life. After reaching for a high pass, Hepke came down and fell backward and hit the ground so forcefully that two discs were dislodged from his spinal column. He jogged back to the huddle, but it was only a matter of minutes before his right arm became immobile. Moments later, he was fully paralyzed and had to be flown to the hospital in a medical helicopter.
Hepke spent two months in rehabilitation. Doctors were uncertain whether he would regain mobility, let alone play sports again. But he made steady improvements. He told his doctors that salsa dancing would be a part of his physical therapy and was eager to get back to it along with all of his normal activities as soon as possible. He came back to salsa class just 9 weeks after his accident, and didn’t let a neck-brace stop him from participating in his first class back. Then, just 14 weeks after the accident, was able to drive and went back to playing soccer after 18 weeks, shying away from contact and being careful to avoid exerting himself. He played while his right foot felt weak but he wanted to test himself.
“I pushed the limits by going back to salsa and sports so quickly, but it challenged me to see where I was and what was really weak,” he said. “Physical activity is a really big part of my life.”
Thinking about life partially, or fully, paralyzed was emotionally painful for a man who had played high school varsity soccer, ice hockey and golf. He followed the doctor’s orders to the letter and worked hard on his rehabilitation.
Hepke’s life is back to normal, so much that he pauses when he is asked which arm was weakest during his recovery. There are no residual effects from his spinal cord injury. Hepke feels triumphant in being able to go out salsa dancing again and has even successfully taken the most advanced salsa class offered at Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio.
Kristen Gilia, 27, of West Chester, is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. At first glance, you wouldn’t guess that she copes with a permanent injury after being struck by a hit-and-run driver as she walked across the street during the early morning hours of September 2, 2007, moments after parting ways with her best friend.
It’s easy to miss the 8-inch raised scar from her right elbow to her right shoulder if you aren’t looking for it. Her right arm was shattered, her pelvis fractured in three places and she suffered bruising to her brain. She used a wheelchair and a walker for three months as she learned to walk again.
The skin around the injured part of her upper arm never completely healed. She has some mobility but she can’t make an arm movement that most people take for granted. She can flap her arms like a duck, she says, but can’t raise her hand above her head.
She is a classically trained and passionate dancer, having taken hip-hop, jazz and tap dance classes since the age of 5. She looks incredibly comfortable on the dance floor and you’d never guess that she has an injured wing that must always be handled gingerly.
“If you don’t know how to dance with me, it’s very likely that you could hurt me,” Gilia says.
If her partner lifts her arm too high for a dance move, or accidentally brushes against her scar, she can experience painful spasms. But it’s a risk she willingly takes. A vehicle operated by a hit-and-run driver changed her life but salsa dancing became the vehicle by which she reclaimed her personal power.
For two years after the accident, Gilia stopped being herself. She would hang out with friends but stopped participating in the activities that brought her the most joy. Gilia stopped playing softball rather than risk being pegged in the arm by a ball, which happened a few times before she quit the game. But she eventually made an agreement with her mother who taught her a lesson about collateral damage.
“If you’re stupid enough to do it, you’re stupid enough to get hurt,” Gilia said, recalling her mother’s words.
The message was that pain is temporary and can be endured but passions run deep and should be nurtured. Dancing was more than just plain fun. It was liberating.
“I stopped my life long enough,” Gilia says. “Finding salsa dancing was like falling in love again after you’ve had your heart broken.”
Gilia joined Salsa In The Suburbs Dance Studio after her friend, Luis Sierra, recommended salsa dancing as a fun activity that had a low-risk of injury to her arm. She now takes salsa classes regularly and attends social dances sponsored by the studio where fellow dancers have learned to improvise on the dance floor in order to avoid aggravating her arm injury. She is also often front and center when performing with one of Salsa in the Suburbs’ performance classes. Her injury is so unapparent to the unknowing eye, that she is even one of the few who has been hired to dance professionally for the studio.
Gilia said that returning to dance has been rewarding because it’s given her the opportunity to educate people about her injury. She says her openness has helped alleviate the awkward moments that arise when people are uncertain about what to say or how to dance with her.
She believes her dance partners have become better leaders because they are aware of her physical limitations and adapt their style accordingly, remembering to lead more turns with her left hand rather than her right and using her injured arm sparingly. Some very interesting moves and patterns often result!
Julie, Darren and Kristen’s dance teacher says, “It’s just amazing how many benefits there are to dancing! They’re endless. So many people come here for an emotional escape, and it’s therapeutic for many. But the physical benefits are also numerous. I feel so fortunately to have seen both Darren and Kristen tackle dancing with such determination and grace and to have not let their injuries hold them back from reinventing themselves as great dancers.”
–Written by Wilford Shamlin III