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St. Paul dancer who rose to national acclaim is dancing her way back from tragedy

Magic happens when Neli Petkova and Woodrow Wills walk into a ballroom dance competition.

When the music strikes, they join together as one, launching themselves forward with power and grace as they sweep through turns. Petkova arcs back and slowly reveals a smile that seems to say all is right in the world. But that smile covers pain rooted deeply in the Twin Cities.

On July 15, 2017, Petkova and her fiancé, former dance partner Nic Westlake, were struck by a light rail train that blew through a stoplight going 29 mph, smashing into their vehicle and pushing it sideways down the track.

Both of the bones in Petkova’s left forearm snapped in two. Westlake was unresponsive. She stumbled out to get help and fell unconscious by the smoldering wreckage. A stranger dragged her away, fearing it would explode. Westlake, 29, died from his injuries two days later, leaving Petkova, 27, with their shattered dreams.

As an amateur couple, they had been ranked seventh in the world and were on the verge of joining the rarefied ranks of professional ballroom dancers. They planned to marry and dreamed of owning their own dance studio.

Now, Petkova finds herself climbing through the rankings of professional competitors with Wills, still grieving the loss of Westlake.

“There is really no coming back, unfortunately, from this,” Petkova said before an annual ballroom competition in Bloomington, which draws some of the premier dancers in the country.

“Nic was kind of everything to me. We danced together. We worked together. We lived together. So having all of that and then, it disappearing in seconds, it’s definitely changed my whole life.”

Petkova started dancing at age 8 in her native Bulgaria. She moved to Minneapolis in 2008 to attend Henry Sibley High School as an exchange student in her senior year with hopes of building a career in dance. Later, she took courses through Dale Carnegie Training, studied management and leadership at Metropolitan State University and managed Dancer’s Studio in St. Paul.

Westlake, a gregarious computer programmer who took up dancing through the University of Minnesota Ballroom Dance Club, met her at a dance party. They began competing together in 2011.

In addition to teaching, Westlake and Petkova volunteered with U Partner Dance, a nonprofit that supports major amateur competitions in the Twin Cities. Westlake created websites for the nonprofit, wrote software to calculate competitors’ scores and was the “scrutineer” (a kind of referee) at the events. Petkova handled social media. They were on their way home from a meeting with the nonprofit when the accident occurred.

“We didn’t really see the train coming,” Petkova said. “As we were crossing the intersection we really saw it at the last minute, and that was it.”

Recovering, not recovered

Petkova had surgery to repair her arm and her brother, who lives in New York, flew out to care for her. She underwent months of physical therapy to regain her dexterity and chiropractic care to help mitigate the scar tissue.

She also “stared the walls” a lot, and thought about giving up dancing.

“But I think Nic would have wanted me to continue dancing and work towards accomplishing the goals we had set and the dreams we had,” she said.

To do so, however, she’d have to find a new dancing partner.

Nels Petersen, head coach of the U’s ballroom club, tapped his connections. And within a few months, Petkova started fielding calls from prospective partners around the world. She tried out with five of them, including Wills.

The two seemed to sync, but she worried the partnership wouldn’t work because of their styles: He’s trained in a formal British style of ballroom dance, while her Italian coaches stress a more dynamic, punchier one. Still, she committed to the partnership because she felt compelled to get back on the dance floor.

Although she’s a U.S. citizen now, Petkova moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, last year to train with Wills. (Their relationship is strictly professional, she said.) While she misses the Twin Cities, her students and colleagues, she’s glad to be away from where the accident occurred.

“I don’t go anywhere near the light rail. I don’t cross it. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to hear it,” she said.

Professional debut

Backed by a cheering section, Petkova and Wills made their debut performance at the Snow Ball DanceSport competition in Bloomington in 2018. They took first place in the International Ballroom style as “Rising Star” professionals. She also performed a special dance in Westlake’s honor.

Donna Edelstein, organizer of the Snow Ball, said she admires Petkova’s resilience “because so many people would be crushed by something like that, but she kept going.”

Six months after their debut, they won first place in the Rising Stars category at the larger Twin Cities Open competition in Minneapolis, and second in a more competitive division.

Petkova’s fans cheered her on again when she and Wills returned to Snow Ball this year, where they placed second in the open ballroom division. They’re currently ranked 162nd in the world and second in Canada in International Ballroom.

Petkova said her goal is to make the world finals one day. But she admits she’s still recovering financially, physically and professionally.

Lacking health insurance, she had amassed nearly $33,000 in medical bills. That, together with more than $26,000 in student loans and an annual income of just over $35,000, forced her to file bankruptcy in April.

“It’s an extremely stressful situation because I’m a very organized person,” she said. “I don’t gamble. I make sure I pay my bills on time … and this big, unfortunate mistake happened and now that I just lost everything.”

She’s working with a psychologist to help her with post-traumatic stress and depression and she’s limited by her arm injury, which required two long metal plates and 11 pins to repair.

“It’s painful every day, so it’s a big reminder of what happened,” she said.

To perform at the highest level, dancers typically do yoga, pilates, kickboxing, climbing or weightlifting, all of which are difficult for Petkova.

But she’s still committed to dancing — the wellspring that replenishes, the shield that protects her.

“I thought if I had this one thing going in a positive direction, one missing piece of my life I could put back together, I thought maybe it would ease the pain,” she said.

That hasn’t happened. Even so, she’s not giving up.

“If I want to succeed,” she said, “I really have to set everything aside and do it.”

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