A love of working with children fueled her career in pediatric physical therapy, but a love of dance pushed her to become a world champion ballroom dancer.
Dr. Erin Abell, who teaches in Bellarmine’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, has been a dancer since she was a toddler. She was on dance teams through high school, and in college she was a Topperette at Western Kentucky University. When she began graduate school at Bellarmine, she had to stop dancing to focus on her education. But after a four-year hiatus, she twirled back into her hobby as a ballroom dancer as well as a country line dancer, competing in the United Country Western Dance Council.
In 2016, Abell won the World Championships in the Pro-Am division (professionals dance with amateurs), which she said is kind of like Dancing with the Stars, “except for nobody’s famous.” She has also competed at a high level in the line dance competition. In that contest, all of the dancers learn the same choreography and dance together in a line on stage. Whoever dances the best, wins. But this isn’t jeans-wearing cowboys with their thumbs in their belt loops line dancing; this is full-on modern dance—in cowboy boots.
“My goal was to just get to the highest division, and I made it to Superstars and competed at the World Championships, and I got sixth,” Abell said. “I was super-duper happy about that, because competitors were 18 and 19, and I was 36 at the time.”
Abell’s father, a physician, is a talented musician who has always played country-rock. Though she likes all types of music, she especially enjoys kicking up her boots.
Her father wanted her to go to medical school, too, she said. But she was never really sure what she wanted to be. At WKU, she changed her major several times, although she always stayed in the sciences. Still unsure, she flipped through the course catalog (it was a book back then) and stumbled on physical therapy. She spent a summer working as a tech at a rehab facility, discovered she loved it and made up her mind that it was what she wanted to do with her life.
Her advisor told her she should interview for physical therapy school in her junior year to get the experience. “I went and interviewed [at Bellarmine] my junior year, and I got told in the interview that I was accepted, like, on the spot.”
She skipped her senior year at WKU and began working on her master’s at Bellarmine. While she was there, the program shifted to a doctoral program, and she stayed with it. Now, the only degree she has is a doctorate.
Abell had originally planned to specialize in working with dancers, but a chance encounter during a clinical rotation changed everything. “A kid walked into the clinic, and none of the clinicians there wanted to treat the kid,” she said. “So [the child] got put on my caseload as a student, and I fell in love with working with kids.”
Along with teaching PT students at Bellarmine, Abell is now self-employed, contracting with the state’s First Steps program, which provides early intervention to children from birth to age 3. She also works with children whose parents have chosen to continue with her past the cutoff age. Children who need her help often have congenital issues such as autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Sometimes they have suffered an injury during birth or are just not meeting their developmental milestones.
She said she enjoys pediatrics because she is there for the firsts.“With adults, they’re typically re-learning a skill that they had previously been able to do, or they’re trying to get back to a previous level of function,” she said. “Maybe they’re in pain and you’re trying to reduce the pain, or they’ve had a stroke and you’re trying to re-teach them how to walk and those types of things. With kids, you’re doing things for the first time. So, you’re trying to help a kid learn to walk or learn to jump. I think it’s just really neat to be on kind of the front end of things.”
Now that she’s met her goals as a competitor, Abell is hanging up her dancing boots. “I was dancing competitively for a really long time, and my competitors were much younger than me,” she said. “My body was starting to break down.”
She still dances socially and was contracted to dance at this year’s Bourbon & Beyond festival. She’ll continue teaching Bellarmine students and helping babies and toddlers to dance through life the best they can.
By Lisa Hornung