Freshman Car­oline Hen­nekes used to be a pro­fes­sional dancer. Courtesy / Car­oline Hen­nekes

Freshman Car­oline Hen­nekes might never have ended up at Hillsdale College if it weren’t for an injury that threw her career plans off track and forced her to overcome unex­pected chal­lenges.

After a childhood of gym­nastics and dancing and two years as a pro­fes­sional dancer with The Sarasota Ballet, Hen­nekes over-extended her hip, tearing the car­tilage in her hip socket and putting her dancing career on pause. Even­tually, this series of events led to her joining the Class of 2021 at Hillsdale College.

From the time she was 3 years old, gym­nastics practice, dance rehearsals, and pointed toes con­sumed Hen­nekes’ life. At the age of 12, the Cincinnati native joined the Northern Cincinnati Youth Ballet.

Exhausted by the pressure of the industry — the long hours and desire for per­fection — Hen­nekes quit. Then, with her mother’s guidance, she decided to give ballet another shot. She quickly gained recog­nition for winning the Youth America Grand Prix in Indi­anapolis at age 15.

“I was sur­prised,” said Eliz­abeth Hen­nekes, Caroline’s mother. “That’s what really cat­a­pulted her.”

Three years later, Hen­nekes grad­uated early from high school and was recruited to dance pro­fes­sionally for the corps de ballet, the core group of dancers, in The Sarasota Ballet. As a member of the corps, Car­oline danced within a group which set a backdrop for the soloists or prin­cipal dancer in a per­for­mance.

With her bubbly per­son­ality and warm smile, Hen­nekes bonded with two other dancers from the ballet, Lexie Ehmann and Sarah Monkman.

“Car­oline has beau­tiful artistry. Her movement quality is elegant and soft, which is enchanting to watch,” said Monkman, who lived with Car­oline in Sarasota. “When watching certain people dance, I think some people just have this way of moving that looks so natural, so a part of them… You’re not just watching someone perform a sequence of chore­o­graphed steps, but that you’re watching a part of someone’s per­son­ality.”

Javier Dubrocq, pro­fes­sional ballet dancer and instructor in Sarasota, remem­bered wit­nessing Caroline’s natural talent in Sarasota.

“She is very flexible and has a natural quality in her move­ments,” Dubrocq said. “She had a prima bal­lerina inside of her. We just had to go and get her out.”

Despite her talent, Hen­nekes faced dif­fi­culties jumping into the pro­fes­sional world at such a young age.

“The first couple of seasons were really rocky because I was the baby,” Hen­nekes said, noting that she had to wash her own laundry, clean, cook, and drive herself to long rehearsals. “I had a lot of growing up to do: I went from being in high school to being an adult and having to take care of every­thing.”

Hen­nekes said her expe­rience with the ballet was “a God thing,” a time when she grew in her faith.

“I actually changed churches and really became a believer,” she said. “From there, it was baby steps, God just freeing me and letting me enjoy what I was doing and live in freedom in it. I give it back to him and use my cre­ativity to worship him.”

At the age of 19, two years after joining the ballet, Hen­nekes’ extreme flex­i­bility led her to tear the car­tilage in her hip socket, halting her dancing career. The injury resulted in surgery, six months of recovery, and an early retirement from ballet.

Ehmann remem­bered Hen­nekes’ stead­fastness and friendship in this trou­blesome time.

“Car­oline handled her injury with maturity and accep­tance,” Ehmann said. “She had a pos­itive outlook because she trusted the plan God had for her life. She con­tinued to encourage me and her friends in the midst of her own struggles.”

Hen­nekes said she relied on faith and prayer in order to determine her next steps.  

“I felt the Lord calling me to some­thing else,” she said. “I wanted to go back to school.”

As she began to look at col­leges, Hen­nekes paid par­ticular attention to col­leges’ mission state­ments. After weighing her options, Hen­nekes decided on Hillsdale.

“I know the aca­demic standing that Hillsdale has,” she said. “I knew that if I was paying to go some­where, I wanted it to be chal­lenging.”

Hen­nekes is studying art and graphic design, skills she uses to make posters for her church at home.

“My life to this point has not gone one iota of what I thought it would look like,” Hen­nekes said. “Every turn I’ve had this idea of what my plan is going to be and what my life is going to be, and it just never goes that way.”

Hen­nekes’ friends said her ability to overcome obstacles impacted them.

“Over the years, Car­oline has become an inspi­ration to me,” Monkman said. “She is a tes­timony to how God can make us new. I’m lucky enough to have been one of Caroline’s closest friends during the period of time when my dear sister walked into a new lease of life. All the credit goes to Jesus.”

Through both her struggles and her suc­cesses, Hen­nekes learned “not to roll with the punches, but grow with them.”

“Whatever happens,” Hen­nekes said, “God is still in control. He is good, and he is sov­ereign, too. God put me under pressure in order to refine me and make me grow.”

Ehmann said Hen­nekes ques­tioned and was angry with her cir­cum­stances, but knew deep down these trials were strength­ening her.

“She had a steadiness through the whole process,” Ehmann said, “a hope that couldn’t be shaken.”