Student uses dance to overcome adversity

Dance major Charles Harris in the dance studio.

Laura Chau/TM

Dance major Charles Harris in the dance studio.

Wendy Solorio

According to Charles Harris, doctors assured him that he wouldn’t be able to walk, talk, or even feed himself because of the physical conditions that come with having cerebral palsy. 

“They told me I wouldn’t be able to do normal, everyday things,” he said, “and yet here I am. Nineteen years, going strong.”

If there is one thing dance major Raul Ortega knows about his friend Charles Harris, it is that the word “disabled,” does not apply to him.

“Don’t call him disabled, because he’s not,” said Ortega. “He doesn’t have a disability. He has an ‘illabilty.'”

Referring to Harris’ talent, a dance major at Cerritos College, has been inspiring those who meet him to rethink the impossible.

 “‘Ill’ is a hip-hop term we use when we think something is cool,” said Ortega, “that’s why we take the ‘dis’ out of disability, because he’s really good at what he does.”

Born with Cerebral Palsy, Harris has proved that dancing is for anyone who believes in the art, regardless of what your physical status may be.

“For me, dancing is a way for me to tell my story,” Harris said. “Being on stage allows me to reach out to people and let them understand what I’m all about.”

Harris and Ortega have been friends since middle school and he was inspired to dance after seeing Ortega perform in high school assemblies.

Ortega has been supportive of Harris’ dancing ever since.

“When I first met Charles, he wasn’t using crutches. He was actually in a wheelchair,” he said, “His transition from then to now has made an impact on so many people.

“He’s a perfectionist. He will practice a single dance move until he gets it right.”

Doctors were not the only ones who questioned Harris’ major. His mother was also a bit skeptical when he first told her what his academic plans were.

“In the beginning, she was kind of ‘iffy’ about it but then she saw all that I was able to do and warmed up to the idea,” he said. “That’s why I love to dance. I love teaching others to rethink the impossible.”

Rethinking the impossible is something Harris lives by and it has been touching the lives of other students in the Dance Department.

Ashley Badali, a fashion merchandising major, was immediately blown away by Harris’ determination and hard work.

“He’s such an inspiration to me. Just seeing him get down on the floor and do his arm work, is amazing,” she said, “As a dancer, he’s taught me to not be so hard on myself. He’s taught me to just be grateful that we can actually dance. That we can move.”

Janet Sanderson, dean of the dance department, is also one of Harris’ supporters. He is currently enrolled in her Introduction to Dance course and feels he is no different than any other dance student.

“He can move around the studio like a tornado,” she said, “He has a true sense of himself, telling me he is neither disabled nor handicapped. Just physically challenged, like every beginning dance student.”

Sanderson also agrees that Harris has made a positive impact on other students in her class.

He inspires his fellow students and often gets great applause when allowed a freestyle performance or his take on a dance class combination,” she said, “Above all, he expresses his appreciation to be at Cerritos, really enjoys dance class, and likes everyone. How great is that!”

As far as his plans for the near future are concerned, Harris hopes to transfer to Cal State Long Beach or UCLA to further himself as a dancer.

For now, he plans to continue dancing at Cerritos and inspire others while he’s doing it.

“If people find something they love to do and it’s making a positive impact on others, they should do it and have a hell of a time doing it,” he said.

“Life is beautiful. So rethink the impossible, because the possibilities are endless.”