TUSCALOOSA Ala.—As talk turns to dance, a grin spreads across Stillman College student Ellory Nichols’ face.
“I just want to dance for the rest of my life,” she said.
Nichols fell in love as a 5-year-old watching a performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet. Watching dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov cemented her passion.
“I begged, begged to be in dance,” said the 21-year-old, who has studied ballet, tap, jazz, modern dance and aerobatics.
That passion inspired Nichols to start a dance troupe at Stillman this fall that is open to anyone who enjoys dance. Struck by the limited dance opportunities at Stillman, Nichols said she began talking with students and faculty soon after transferring from Shelton State Community College about the possibility of starting a group on campus.
Nichols is in the process of forming the first ballet company on campus. She said she hopes the group can perform “The Nutcracker” next December. Right now, Nichols is working with her adviser to find funds and sponsors.
The art major also dreams of having a dance degree program at Stillman and establishing her own community dance company in Tuscaloosa, where she could share her passion with others. It’s a dream Nichols’ mother, Debra Nichols, believes her daughter is driven enough to achieve.
Dance has been Nichols’ outlet and, at times, an escape.
“If you take dance away, she would feel absolutely trapped,” Nichols’ mother said. “That is her expression.”
It has been a comforting constant for Nichols, who suffers from epilepsy, as she has learned to forgo some of her independence following a grand mal seizure in December 2011.
“Some of the things I used to do, I can’t do any more,” Nichols said.
She had not experienced a severe seizure since adolescence. Her symptoms, kept in check with daily medication, remained mild during her teens.
Nichols had her own apartment, a job and enjoyed an active lifestyle as a college student.
“At age 19, I don’t know what happened,” she said, sitting at a table in Stillman’s library with her service dog, Molly—a relatively recent addition to her life—snoozing at her feet.
Nichols blacked out during the grand mal seizure at her apartment in Tuscaloosa, she said. Her parents rushed over to help after she did not respond to calls and text messages.
Nichols’ parents eventually got into the apartment with help from her landlord after their spare key failed to unlock the apartment door.
In the aftermath, Nichols’ neurologist recommended giving up strenuous activities and advised against living alone. That meant giving up soccer she couldn’t risk a knock to the head and running. Nichols gave up her apartment, stopped driving in most cases, took a hiatus from college, and moved back into her parents’ Tuscaloosa home.
Following the seizure, Nichols said she began new medication that has helped keep her symptoms in check. But she still has less-severe partial seizures and worries about being alone and driving by herself.
“For me, it was hard at first because I was so used to being independent, but what I learned with my dad and my mom is it’s OK to ask for help,” Nichols said.
She relies on her parents for help with transportation, assistance when she has seizures and moral support.
“I owe them everything,” Nichols said.
She has also learned to accept the assistance of Molly, an American bulldog adopted from the Montgomery Humane Society in April. Molly has helped her to recover some of her independence.
The service dog almost all white but for a smudge of black below her nose accompanies Nichols everywhere and helps warn of impending seizures. The dog stays by her owner’s side during attacks.
Nichols, initially hesitant to take on a service animal, bonded with the friendly dog during their first meeting, she said.
“It was fate,” Nichols said. “She needed me, and I needed her.”
Nichols had always been the person to offer to help rather than ask for it, according to her mother.
At times, the adjustment still frustrates her daughter, Debra Nichols said.
“I still want to do things I love,” Nichols said.
In the past, Nichols said she pushed herself toward perfection.
“For me, I was one of the people that kept going and going and wouldn’t quit,” Nichols said. “For me, quitting felt like a loser.”
Last year, she passed out while practicing for a dance performance at Shelton State.
“I knew I was over-exerting myself, but I wanted to get the move right,” she said.
Nichols has worked to find a balance between caution and her dreams.
“That’s a big thing to learn,” Nichols said. “Take a step back and do things in stages.”
The re-adjustments to her life because of epilepsy have only reinforced her desire to dance.
While she conceded to most of the changes recommended by her doctor, Nichols refused to give up dance.
“Dance we had to compromise on,” she said. “Dance was something I wasn’t going to quit.”
Nichols’ refusal to forgo dance despite the challenges of epilepsy is inspired in part by the memory of a childhood friend with whom she danced as a teen in a community company in Florida.
Her adolescent friend walked with a limp, but Nichols said she was a talented dancer.
Nichols recalled a young woman who practiced each day and refused to give in to teasing by peers who thought her incapable because of her disability. The friend refused to be defined by her disability and advised Nichols never to give up dancing if she loved it.
“I have always kept that in the back of my mind,” she said. “Seizures will never define who I am.”