Gifted with excellent flexibility and a mind for movement, Chelsea Dingee could have become a gymnast. But even at age five it was apparent that her heart really lay elsewhere.
“I would take her to gymnastics class, and she would spend the entire time twirling across the gymnastics floor,” says Chelsea’s mother Kelly. “They said, ‘she's good at tumbling, but you should get her in dance.’”
Today, Chelsea is a junior at Urbana High School and a competitive dancer with Dance Unlimited, in Frederick, mastering routines in styles as diverse as hip-hop, lyrical, tap and classical ballet.
“It's just a really cool way to express myself and just get out all of my emotions in one place and a great place for me to make friends and meet new people,” she says.
But the journey hasn’t been without curves in the road, and in Chelsea’s case, curves in her spine: In middle school, Chelsea was diagnosed with scoliosis, a sideways curvature of her spine that made positioning — all-important for dancers — an even greater challenge for her.
“With her scoliosis, she always has to adjust,” Kelly says of Chelsea. “She has a hip tilt that most dancers won't have because of the S-curve in her back, and she also has one shoulder that’s a little bit higher than the other. Even though it feels normal, she has to check herself and overcompensate for it.”
And so, Chelsea began treatment for scoliosis — by wearing a brace for up to 20 hours a day to correct the curvature, a whole other kind of challenge.
“It was just a lot to handle,” Chelsea says. “Once I started wearing it to school, people would notice it and ask me about it and point it out. It definitely made me more self-conscious than I needed to be.”
That’s when Players Fitness and Performance of Frederick came into the picture.
Kelly was familiar with the gym and the training they could provide, but looking deeper into what PFP could offer, she found that one of the coaches, Stephanie Franks, was a former dancer who had also dealt with scoliosis as Chelsea was.
“Coach Stephanie could develop a training program that would really help Chelsea strengthen her back and her core, to try and keep her curves as aligned as possible along with the bracing,” Kelly says.
“Working with Chelsea was awesome, because we have such a similar background,” coach Stephanie says. “I’ve struggled with scoliosis my whole life as well. We were able to connect through that and our both having dance backgrounds.”
And having walked — and danced — that path and become a coach, coach Stephanie knew the right training regimen could actually help Chelsea bring her spine back into better alignment and improve her form on stage.
“You try to get the muscles to support the spine in healthy ways so that it almost counterbalances itself,” coach Stephanie says. “It's amazing how the muscles can kind of help shift the scoliosis, if you will, as you're growing.”
But despite their rapport and coach Stephanie’s experience, it did take Chelsea a little while to feel like these new workouts, put in once per week on top of more than 20 hours of dancing, were really going to make a difference.
“I was definitely skeptical at first because it was a rounded workout. I was doing stuff for everything and I wasn't completely clear on how all of that would help my back,” she says. “It took me a while to realize but a lot of the workouts were still focused on my core, and that was helping my back.”
Four years later, Chelsea is a skeptic no longer.
“With my back, my curves have gotten significantly better, and they pretty much stayed better,” she says. “Dance wise I’ve noticed my strength and stamina are better than they used to be. I can make it through a two and a half, three-minute dance without feeling like I'm going to pass out at the end.”
The results speak for themselves, according to Kelly, who says that while Chelsea was always very flexible, she now has the strength to back that flexibility up.
“It's one thing to be able to kick your leg up high and it's another thing being able to kick your leg up high and hold it for two or three minutes,” Kelly says.
But the benefits they’ve found at PFP go beyond the physical training.
“It's an extremely positive environment. So even if you're in the worst mood, you go in there and you are going be high fived,” Kelly says. “You are going to be greeted cheerfully and they are going to lead you to have a good workout.”
And that positive environment has become like a second home for Chelsea. A safe place where she has been able to grow more sure of herself after the challenges to her self-esteem brought on by wearing her brace at school.
“Going to PFP helped me opened up more and it made me less shy and more open about what was going on,” she says. “I used to get extremely nervous before I would go on stage, and while I still get jitters, now I feel more in control of what’s going on stage.”
Most recently, the PFP team decided to honor Chelsea by naming her January’s Athlete of the Month.
“I was very surprised,” Chelsea says. “I didn't expect it at all.”
But according to coach Stephanie, it was really an easy decision.
“You know, she's only here one time a week and we normally don't give Athlete of The Month to people who are here one time a week,” coach Stephanie says. “But when Chelsea is here, she's just all in, and her progress has been just amazing. We were all like, ‘Oh yeah, definitely Chelsea!’”
As for what’s next, Chelsea wants to keep dancing through high school, may even do so in college, having the dance teams at Clemson and Penn State over the summer. She’s hoping to go to college for biology and forensic science, but movement will never be very far from her mind.
“I would love to keep dancing in the picture going forward. I'd love to do like a dance team in college, and maybe come back and teach at my studio,” Chelsea says. “And coming back to PFP — It's something that I hope I could do in the future.”
Coach Stephanie could see just that happening.
“Chelsea is a girl who if she can dream it, I think that she can accomplish it,” coach Stephanie says. “It could be teaching; she has such a love and passion for it!”
Wherever the next few years take her, Chelsea, will keep the lessons she learned at PFP close to heart.
“I definitely started going strictly for my back, but now I’ve created a second family for myself at PFP,” she says. “I just want to build a better me, I guess I could say, and continue to get better, physically and mentally, every single time I go in.”
That’s Chelsea Dingee’s Why. What’s your Why?