Jilissa Cotten on Perspective and Dance - The Bend Magazine

Jilissa Cotten on Perspective and Dance

Photo by Lillian Reitz

In conversation with TAMU-CC‘s Associate Professor and Director of Dance on her life-changing accident, a new-found perspective and her love for dance.

KC: In the summer of 2020, you suffered a spinal cord injury from a traumatic water-related accident, which left you paralyzed from the chest down. Take me back to that day and what was going through your mind.

JC: At the time of the accident, all I could think about was, “Please, God, let me walk again.” I didn’t even think about not being able to use my arms or hands. Once I started walking, I thought, “Maybe I should have prayed to use my arms and hands first.” It took me months to use them, which meant I couldn’t be as independent as I wanted. It also took me months to realize I wouldn’t be dancing like I used to. The day of the accident, my life as I knew it was dead. I now have a new life, and I have to figure out how I can incorporate my love for dance in this new body.

KC: After an intensive six-week stay at the Texas NeuroRehab Center, you were able to walk out on your own. What was that rehabilitation process like?

JC: The rehabilitation process was intense. I had an hour of physical therapy and an hour of occupational therapy every day, and even when I was feeling down, the therapists came into my room and got me up and going. I had so much support from the therapists and the nurses, which made it easier to stay positive even though none of my family was able to visit due to COVID. My husband Larry camped outside my window every day to spend time with me and bring me the kind of food I loved. Texas Neuro was a blessing!

KC: Do you feel your professional dance background aided you in the rehabilitation process, both mentally and physically?

JC: Oh, for sure! As a ballet-trained dancer, I learned early on in my dance career that hard work pays off, so when I had my spinal cord injury, the first thing that ran through my mind was that I needed to physically put one foot in front of the other and work hard. Determination has gotten me far in so many areas of my life, and dance training is very similar. My dancer friends will agree with me that if you don’t put in the time, energy and work, you won’t get very far. It’s the same in life and any traumatic life situation.

KC: You returned to work as the Associate Professor and Director of Dance at TAMU-CC in the spring of 2021. What, if any, new perspective on dance and teaching did you bring with you?

JC: I had to learn how to teach differently and embrace it. For my entire teaching and choreographic career, I have demonstrated the movement—and now I can barely get down to the floor and back up without the music passing me by! At first, I was extremely frustrated and questioned my ability to be a good teacher and mentor, but then I realized my students are smart and inquisitive enough to ask questions and listen when I explain choreography or use teaching concepts using other parts of the body and leaning into the expressive ways of moving.

KC: What advice would you give to others facing adversity of any magnitude?

JC: Do the work, whatever that means to you, just do the work. I would never be where I am today if I stayed in my bed feeling sorry for myself. Not to say I don’t have tough days, because I do, but even on those hard days, take a little time to cry, scream, beat something—and then move on with your day by doing the work.

KC: What is your first cognizant memory of dance?

JC: At age five or six, we had dress rehearsal for our recital and I KNEW my dance! My group got onstage, and the entire class forgot the dance except me, which made it look like I didn’t know the dance. I started to cry and told my parents I quit and was not performing the following night. Sure enough, I have to thank my parents for encouraging me back on that stage because at age 53, I still get to do what I love: dance and perform.

KC: What does dance mean to you?

JC: I produced and edited a video this year to share with our college students what I have experienced over this last year and a half, and at the end, I asked my students and colleagues to share what dance meant to them. My response was, “To me, dance is life.”

Rapid Fire Questions: 

What’s your favorite dance movie?  

Dirty Dancing (can never get enough of Patrick Swayze)!

What was the hardest dance style for you to learn? 

Tap. My ankles were too stiff because I started dancing en pointe at age 10.

If you were on “Dancing with the Stars,” who would you want as your partner? 

I don’t really watch “Dancing with the Stars,” but I would love to dance with Derek Hough (I know, he’s probably considered old school by now).

What are your favorite local businesses to visit? 

Water Street Oyster Bar, BKK Thai Kitchen + Bar, Pilar, Made in Corpus Christi, and Tannins Wine Bar + Tapas.