Resilient dancer defies injuries and shines on stage

Blinding white lights flood the IN10SITY regionals performance space as the invisible crowd hushes. The notes of Lady Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way” cascade into the room, enveloping Eli Medina in a whirlwind of memories. It is her 18th birthday. 

Pain, sweat, tears—recovery. It was at that moment that Eli thought to herself, “I’m back.” 

But that moment left as quickly as it came. Twenty seconds into her performance, Eli prepared herself for a turn, and her knee popped out of place, filling her with both terror and pain.

“This isn’t fair,” she thought to herself. “I worked too hard.” 

Eli Medina performing “Almost Lover” at IN10SITY nationals 2022 (Provided by Medina / Courtesy of IN10SITY DANCE)

Elizabeth Marie Medina, known by her peers as Eli, is an 18-year-old Cuban-American from Hialeah. She is a force to be reckoned with both on and off the dance floor. Placing at both regional and national levels, her journey has been marked by resilience and unwavering passion. From enduring toxic environments in dance studios to facing two life-changing injuries, she remains a shining light and role model for those around her. 

She not only tore her ACL on her birthday in 2023, but she had done the same a year before.

“Eli is a miracle,” notes Aliza Marrero, a good friend and teammate, “Eli is probably the only person I know that could’ve done this and gotten through it like how she did.”

Eli Medina posing in her “Fashionista” costume (Courtesy of Medina)

Eli began dancing at age 2 with the dance company Ballet Ouvert. She was known for her feisty personality. Once, she insisted that she would only dance if her instructor put on her dance shoes. And sure enough, the teacher slipped on the footwear. 

Throughout the next eight years, Eli grew her skills. She was even placed in a routine with girls three years her senior. The theme of the dance was “Fashionista,” and she was placed front and center among her older peers. 

“It’s one of my core memories,” she says, “there was this part where I had to step up and mouth ‘No. Ugly. Allowed.’ ” 

Performing “Ruby Blue”  at IN10SITY nationals 2022 (Provided by Medina / Courtesy of IN10SITY DANCE)

Other than ballet, Eli also performs jazz and musical theater, but ultimately she is a contemporary solo dancer through and through. 

Although the life of a competitive dancer can be exciting, it can also be brutal. After leaving Ballet Ouvert, she joined a studio that was toxic. The owner even called Eli a “whore”– and she was only in fifth grade. 

Elizabeth’s mother, Yolanda, knew the environment was bad, but she supported her daughter’s decisions. She wanted to make sure her daughter knew what she wanted. 

“I remember driving and I really didn’t like this owner…I turned around and I said ‘Eli, when you’ve had enough, let me know’,” recalls Yolanda, “‘I’m ready to go, but I need you to be ready.’”

Yolanda argues that dance studio environments can cross the line from building the children up to belittling them and putting them down, creating a negative space and self doubt. Despite this, Medina wanted to keep going. Dance was her passion, and no amount of belittling was going to deter her away from it.

Eli with her team from DCDA at nationals in 2023 (Courtesy of Medina)

Finally, Eli made her transition into her new studio during the 6th grade, Dance Creations Dance Academy. Here is where her passion and love for competition truly blossomed. Not only does DCDA do regional and national competitions, but the studio also holds a showcase and recital during the off season. 

While there were plenty of opportunities to perform, nothing compared to the thrill and adrenaline rush of a competitive stage. Eli calls it her happy time, because dancing freed her. When she wants to work through her emotions, she turns to dance in order to let go. 

 “I had so much emotion,” Eli commented about her performances. “Most of my corrections were that I gave TOO much emotion!”

Eli with her teammate, Aliza Marrero on high school graduation day (Courtesy of Medina) 

But some of the best parts about competition and dancing weren’t even when she was on stage. She loved seeing the littles sit in the front row to watch others perform, witnessing what they’d be able to achieve one day. She loved the late night dinners with the team after 14 hours of dancing. 

But above all, she loved being able to build family-like connections with some of these dancers, like her good friend Aliza, who Eli goes as far as referring to as her “other half.” Despite their two-year age gap, Aliza never felt more welcomed by a peer.

“Eli is just such an inviting person…I felt like as soon as I started talking to her I just couldn’t stop,” Aliza recalls about the day she met Eli in the studio.

Eli performing “Hold My Hand” at IN10SITY regionals April 8 2022 (Provided by Medina / Courtesy of IN10SITY DANCE)

Eli and Aliza would often rehearse together at DCDA during competition season, spending several hours every day in the studio. 

During a rehearsal for a regional competition on April 21, 2022, Eli was going over her solo “Hold My Hand” by Isak Danielson. The dance was about a toxic relationship in her life and how she continued to give that relationship everything she had, knowing it would only drown her. She was on edge the entire rehearsal and couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was wrong.

“I’m the type of person that when I get like that, I go over my dance 10 times, I stretch 10 times, I won’t just sit in the back,” she claims. 

In this particular dance, she had to perform a jump.

 “I’m a jumper, everyone would rave about my jumps,” she says. 

So, she did her stunt, and when she landed, her knee went in and out. She knew instantly that something was very wrong. 

Eli performing “Hold My Hand” at IN10SITY regionals April 8 2022 (Provided by Medina / Courtesy of IN10SITY DANCE)

“When it happened, I kinda had an anxiety attack,” Eli says, “I started laughing!” 

Everyone at the rehearsal tried to disregard the injury. They didn’t want to accept the possibility of Eli being unable to compete. Aliza recalls teammates telling her that she was fine and she could still dance. But she couldn’t even walk.

“That’s another thing about dance. When you’re injured they like to push it away,” says Aliza. “If you’re injured you can’t dance.”

Nobody wanted to believe it was true, but her medical examination proved she had shredded her ACL, bruised her tibia, and lost part of her meniscus.

Eli in the hospital the day of her first knee surgery, June 3 2022 (Courtesy of Medina) 

She took a break from her sport after the accident, got surgery, and began to slowly heal. She went to therapy every day for a month and a half during the recovery process and saw two different physical therapists. 

Dr. Christine Lessard-Lloyd, the physical therapist specializing in dance medicine, pushed her and gave her hope. 

“She was awesome, she kept on saying there’s a light at the end,” says Eli, “She went to the gym and told me what machines to work on and what was good for my leg.” 

It was the kindness and support from her therapist that empowered Eli to fight through her recovery. Lessard-Lloyd even inspired Medina to pursue physical therapy herself, so that she may help other dancers the same way.

“I want to help people get back into the sport they love, because I couldn’t,” she stated. 

Eli watching her teammates compete during recovery in 2022 (Courtesy of Medina)

It took her three months to be cleared for ballet. It was her senior year of high school, and she was not going to allow this roadblock to deter her.

Typically, most dance companies age-out their performers at 18-20 years old. So for Elizabeth, she knew that her senior year in high school would possibly be her very last year to dance. 

“I was very determined to get back,” she says. 

Eli performing “Always Remember Us This Way” at IN10SITY regionals April 2 2023 (Provided by Medina / Courtesy of IN10SITY DANCE)

So she came back early. Almost a year passed, and Eli was doing amazingly. Although she was afraid to do her notorious jumps again, she still managed smaller feats, like assemblé. The young dancer continued therapy, and had transitioned to going twice a week while still training. 

Then things took an ugly turn on April 2, 2023 – her birthday. It was the first competition of her senior year and the second dance she had performed. 

She was exhilarated knowing her director had chosen this solo specifically for her. It was danced to “Always Remember Us This Way” by Lady Gaga, and was dedicated to the story of her first injury and how hard she had worked. But as she stepped up to make a turn, her knee popped out of its place once again, causing her to fall to the floor.

Eli in a group dance performing at IN10SITY regionals in 2023, post-first surgery (Provided by Medina / Courtesy of IN10SITY DANCE)

Aliza knew before she even landed that something had gone wrong, and she rushed to the stage to drag her off, quickly followed by Yolanda. 

“That experience for me was unreal,” Yolanda states, “My heart broke for her.” 

All Yolanda could do was repeat that Eli was fine. “I wanted to say it to the universe.” 

Justin Lebron, Elizabeth’s childhood friend, remembers receiving a text from her simply stating, “It happened again.” His heart completely dropped, and he thought for a moment his friend might be joking. 

“In the first 20 seconds that I was dancing on that stage, everyone said ‘That was Eli’ you could see my passion came back,” Eli tearfully remarks.

Eli’s ACL after second injury (Courtesy of Medina)

She was angry. She didn’t think it was fair. She had put in the work to heal. She had committed to countless days and hours of therapy so she could get back on that stage. She adjusted her routines to provide less strain on her knee. 

“No one else would’ve done that,” she says. “It wasn’t even my fault.” 

Eli’s ACL completely broke. One of the causes for this happening was that she is a hyperextensive person. The holes drilled into her leg bone were not drilled at an angle, and the screws were too tight, making the snap inevitable for a dancer.

So, she had to have a total reconstruction. The new surgeon filed down her bone to give her more freedom, fixed her meniscus, and took part of her iliotibial band to secure her ACL. 

“She’s like a bionic woman now,” her mother says. 

That being said, Eli didn’t actually get the surgery until after the 2023 season was over. 

Eli performing “What Have I Done” (*left) and “Lady of The Night” (right) at nationals, post-second injury in 2023 (Courtesy of Medina)

Eli and her mother spoke with their doctor, and she was given the green light to finish out her season given that the director adjusted her routines to avoid further damage. And she did it. She continued to dance without an ACL.

“I forced myself to finish…I didn’t do this for 16 years of my life just to give up,” she says. “I told my surgeon, ‘I’m doing this.’”

Yolanda fully supported her daughter’s decision, “I’m no one to stand in the way.”

There were difficult challenges ahead. Eli had limited movement, and she was taken out of a lot of group dances that were too much of a strain on her knee. She began going to the gym every day to strengthen her quad for supplemental support.

Eli and her parents, Carlos and Yolanda, at the DCDA banquet in 2023 (Courtesy of Medina) 

But the toll this process took on her mentally left its mark. The truth is, she never got back to form. 

“It just sucked comparing myself to others…I was always at this level with these girls and now I’m not,” Eli says. 

Justin did his best to be there for Eli, and he was a witness to some of her darkest moments. 

“No matter how strong she seemed and how much she pushed and pushed to be fine, deep down she knew her limits and it was a hard pill to swallow,” he says.

Eli and Justin in November 2023 (Courtesy of Lebron)

Justin kept reminding Eli of the resilient woman she is. 

“I remember meeting Eli in first grade and I saw her and thought to myself, ‘That one, she’s not going anywhere’,” Justin recalls, “She’s always there for me, and I’ll always be there for her.” 

And Eli persevered like no one else would have. 

She even competed some more during the 2023 season and danced in her studio’s showcase production. She left her mark, and finished her juvenile dancing career.

Eli before and after her ACL reconstruction surgery in August 2023 (Courtesy of Medina)

After her second surgery, Eli’s lifestyle completely shifted. There were hard days where she felt weaker, incapable of doing normal daily tasks. She felt lost and didn’t know what to do.

However, Eli now finds herself in a better place. She is nearing the end of her first year at FIU and will soon begin internships for physical therapy. She has even started her own amateur makeup artist business on Instagram called Glamour By Medina. She loves makeup and the ability to transform others, and doing makeup allows her to interact with all sorts of different people. 

“I feel Eli has adjusted great,” comments her mother, “She has a lot of dedication, a lot of passion…Passion fuels you, and I think everybody needs that.”

April 2, 2024 will mark the anniversary of the traumatic experience, but it will also mark another year of life. Elizabeth Medina is a woman who does not let life’s obstacles drag her down. She knows that nothing will ever fill the void of dance, and she knows she’s going to have days that are more difficult emotionally than most. 

“But being sad isn’t going to change anything,” she remarks, “Life happens.”

Nathaly Dominguez is a junior majoring in journalism with a passion for the performing arts. After her studies, she wishes to pursue a career in entertainment media, allowing her to dissect pop-culture at the professional level.