After her car accident, this grad student found community in a wheelchair dance team

Dillon Thompson
·4-min read

Before her accident, Natalie Fung was an active person. She liked hiking, going to the beach and exploring the outdoors around Los Angeles.

She was an active college student, too. Fung studied public relations at the University of Southern California, and of course, went to plenty of football games. She was on track to graduate early, and even had an internship lined up at Nickelodeon.

A car accident during her senior year changed so much of that. It happened during a spontaneous trip to Las Vegas, when she and some friends decided to make the four-hour drive on a whim. The vacation was exciting, but safe. Once they got there, she and her friends took taxis everywhere.

One night, they were riding in a cab that was hit by a drunk driver. The crash left Fung paralyzed from the chest down.

“When I was in the hospital, I remember a doctor coming in and my family wasn’t there yet because I was only with my friends,” Fung told In The Know. “A doctor came in and told me that I was a quadriplegic and I wouldn’t be able to move my arms or my legs. And so it was just a really, really big, shocking moment.”

Fung, now 28, is a C5 quadriplegic. People with C5 spinal injuries can raise their arms and bend their elbows, but still experience some paralysis in their upper body as well as their lower body.

The injury changed a lot about Fung’s life, but, seven years after her accident, she’s active in so many ways that have brought her a new community, and a new way of finding joy.

One of the most majors things, Fung said, was finding The Rollettes.

The Rollettes, based in Los Angeles, are an all-female wheelchair dance team that aims to “prove dance is dance whether you are walking or rolling.” The group has become massively popular in recent years, with features on “Today” and “Good Morning America” and more than 163,000 followers on TikTok.

Fung joined the team in 2019, years after her first encounter with them.

“I went to my first Rollettes [event] in 2016,” Fung told In The Know. “There were [12 or 13] other girls in wheelchairs there. And I remember thinking, ‘This is the most amount of girls in wheelchairs I’ve ever seen in my entire life.’ I was blown away and thought it was really, really cool.”

Even attending that 2016 event was a big change for Fung. In the early days after her accident, she didn’t really associate with the disability community.

“[I thought], ‘I have friends who are walking and able-bodied. And I already have friends, I don’t need new friends,'” Fung said. “And so it took me a while to really embrace the disability community and let myself become a part of it.”

Getting more involved, though, was one of the “best decisions” Fung ever made. She realized almost immediately that The Rollettes was a community she wanted to be a part of.

“I remember making a little joke about how I wasn’t a good dancer and everyone was like, ‘No, no, no. This isn’t about being a good dancer. You know, it’s about just like having fun and like getting some exercise and meeting new friends,'” Fung said.

After that, Fung attended every Rollettes event she could. After joining officially in 2019, she became a full-time team member in 2020 — just as COVID-19 swept through the country.

The pandemic changed everything about how the team could meet, practice and hold shows, but it also allowed them to get creative. They found new outlets, like TikTok, to stay in touch with their fans — and each other.

TikTok became a huge outlet for Fung, too. In addition to appearing in The Rollettes’ videos, she started her own channel in late March — just as lockdowns were beginning nationwide.

“When quarantine started, I was like, ‘What’s something that I can do to take up my time?'” Fung said. “And TikTok was blowing up, so I decided to join TikTok and I had a lot of fun making content on there.”

Fung’s page features, of course, dance videos, but also comedy skits, lifestyle content and honest explanations about her disability.

Like so many people, Fung has had a tough year. The pandemic has been difficult, and sometimes isolating, for her. She hasn’t been able to see her teammates safely many times this year, but when she has, it’s made a huge difference.

“My mood is up is when I’m with the girls,” Fung said “After I would see them, I feel like I would be like, ‘Right, right.’ Because it was a time when I wasn’t stuck at home and I was able to see friends and, you know, to have people relate to me.”

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s profile on Jiya Day, the 20-year-old TikToker with cerebral palsy.

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Starbucks is opening its first sign language store in Japan

Meet Aarón Acosta, the quadruple amputee who’s one of TikTok’s favorite dance stars

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