Dancer Holly Connell is following her dreams after recovering from near-fatal illness. Sheena Grant reports

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DANCER Holly Connell’s career was just taking off, with appearances on prime-time Saturday night television and at high-profile venues, when she was struck down with meningitis.

The potentially-fatal illness put her in hospital for almost two weeks and took months to recover from, but when she got back on her feet, Holly just couldn’t rekindle her desire to work in a professional dance troupe.

Instead, she dreamed of setting up her own cheerleading business, teaching others the moves made popular by TV shows such as Glee and High School Musical.

And that’s exactly what she’s done. Holly now runs classes for all ages and abilities in Colchester and Wivenhoe, and also offers cheerleading parties for children, hen nights and other occasions. “It’s something I always dreamed of doing,” says the 25-year-old. “After recovering from the meningitis, I felt like I’d been given another life and I just had to go for it.”

Holly became unwell with bacterial meningitis – the most serious form of the illness – extremely quickly and, had it not been for a phone call to her mum and the fact she lived next door to a doctor’s surgery at the time, she might not have survived.

“It was really scary and came completely out of the blue,” she says. “I was so fit and healthy.

“I had been training the night before and I woke up the next day with all my muscles aching. I just put it down to the fact that I had been exercising the night before.”

At the time – September 2011 – Holly was living with her boyfriend in London, where she worked in an insurance office by day and as a semi-professional cheerleader in her spare time. “I had something I had to do at work in the office that day and, despite how I was feeling, I told myself just to get on with it,” she says. “As I got up, I started to feel sick and dizzy but I was determined to get to work. I got on the underground, all the time feeling like I was going to be sick; so I got off and walked to work.

“I remember sitting and looking at my computer and the screen was going all blurry and I started to get hot. I went outside the building and felt I couldn’t walk anymore. I didn’t know what to do. There was a black cab going past so I stuck my hand out and got the driver to take me back to my flat, where I got straight into bed.

“I was on my own in the flat and although I felt so ill I had no idea how serious it was. I must have fallen asleep because I woke up feeling more hot than I have ever felt before in my life, but I was also feeling cold as well. It was so strange. I had a really stiff neck and my head felt like it was going to explode. Then I looked down and I could see I had loads of spots on my skin. I knew that was not good and so I phoned my mum, who called my boyfriend and got him to come straight back.

“She told me afterwards that I was sounding delirious.

“Luckily, there was a doctor’s surgery just outside my building and my boyfriend carried me in there.

“They took one look at me and said I needed to get to hospital.”

A doctor at the surgery also gave Holly an antibiotic injection there and then, which she now thinks helped to save her life.

“If I had not woken up and called my mum I could have died.

“I was really lucky.

“When I got to hospital and they started giving me medication I just couldn’t believe what was happening to me and how quickly it had come on. It was terrible but I couldn’t have been any luckier with the treatment I had at the doctor’s surgery and in hospital.”

She is now completely recovered and living back in her home town, Colchester. The only residual effect of her illness is a sensitivity to light.

Holly, who started dancing in childhood, learning everything from ballet and tap to modern dance, didn’t discover cheerleading until she went to university.

“I went to sign up for some dance classes but there weren’t any,” she says. “But there did happen to be cheerleading classes, so I thought I’d give it a try and completely fell in love with it.

“It is originally American but it’s popular among students over here and is getting more well-known generally. The whole thing about cheerleading is you are supporting a team – that’s originally where it came from. It’s about having fun and entertaining everyone and I think that’s what I love about it.”

When she fell ill, Holly’s cheerleading career was just starting to take off. The team she was part of had performed on The X-Factor and Red or Black?, hosted by Ant and Dec, as well as at a host of other high-profile venues, including Ascot races.

“I was having a fantastic time,” says Holly. “I had always loved dancing and had worked up the courage to go for an audition to join this cheerleading group, which was successful. I was finally getting somewhere and thinking everything was going so well. I was even starting to think that maybe it was something I could do full-time.

“When I fell ill I lost all that strength and flexibility. I could barely walk, let alone dance. Everything went and I couldn’t do anything for myself.”

Holly, who had by then returned to the family home in Colchester to recover, lost all her hard-won self-confidence.

“I thought I would never be able to do anything like that again. I was at total rock bottom,” she says.

As she started to regain her physical strength, Holly saw an advertisement for dancers to take part in the London Paralympics opening ceremony and decided to audition. She could hardly believe her luck when she was one of those selected.

“Having the chance to take part in that opening ceremony gave me so much confidence,” she says. “Being around all those athletes who had overcome disabilities to get where they were really inspired me. There were even some athletes who had had meningitis.

“I was getting my fitness back but when I went for the audition I was so shocked at how far I still had to go to reach the fitness I had before. I thought my audition was terrible and felt sure I wouldn’t get through, but I was wrong. Practising for the opening ceremony really helped me. It was a different style of dance to the cheerleading, more contemporary, but I loved it all the same.

“Before the Paralympics came along I had been thinking about the possibility of joining another cheerleading team, as I had done before. But the Paralympics really inspired me and made me realise that a lot of those teams are quite strict and what I really wanted was to have fun with the cheerleading after everything I had been through.”

When she was better, Holly also returned to her insurance job in London; but her heart wasn’t in it.

“Having meningitis made me realise that life can be taken away from you so quickly and I needed to do what I love, which is dancing,” she says.

“An office job was not for me and I decided to completely change my life and try and set up my own classes. I just wanted to have fun and to introduce people to cheerleading in a social setting, where they can hopefully make friends too. So far it’s going really well and everyone seems to have such a good time. All the children are loving it and I do adult classes as well. It’s just a new and different way to get into fitness. I’d like to end up with classes everywhere – I’d like cheerleading to take over Essex!”

Holly teaches a range of moves in her classes, including formation work and some of the “cheers” the style is most famed for.

“A lot of dancing can be quite individual but this gives people the chance to work as part of a team, which is what is so good about it,” she says.

“I just can’t believe where I am now. I feel I am 99% back where I was in fitness and health terms before I had the illness, and that’s something I thought I wouldn’t be able to achieve at one time.”

To find out more, visit www.hrcallstars.com. Classes are currently held at the Hythe Community Centre in Colchester and William Loveless Hall, Wivenhoe, but more are planned for Clacton and Harwich.

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