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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.”