Bria Jahrling (now Bria Comer) was a freshman at James Madison majoring in dance when her whole world changed in January of 2008. Crossing the street in the college town of Harrisonburg, Virginia, Bria was struck by a vehicle going 40 miles per hour. She was flown to the trauma center at UVA where the emergency room doctor called her mom and told her to “drive fast.” They weren’t sure she would make it through the night. Bria had a broken scapula and a damaged frontal lobe. She spent the next several weeks in a rehabilitation facility — Bria doesn’t remember the first month at all. At a facility in Baltimore, she re-learned how to complete basic tasks most students take for granted—from making a grilled cheese sandwich to walking. Over and over, she and her family were told that dance would never be a part of her life again. She was just lucky to be alive.
Bria was determined to prove them wrong.
Eight weeks after her accident, and with the help of her tap teacher, Bria attended her first dance class. It wasn’t what she hoped for, “I wasn’t able to stretch, turn as fast, or do so many of the moves I had always done. I had to work for things that had always come naturally.” Slowly she began to regain her fine motor skills and worked her way back to top form. Bria was able to go back to JMU the following August. “I feel stronger now than I ever have as a dancer,” she said. “I have more confidence and strength. Having to work for every little thing has made me better.”
Bria, now 26, is the artistic director of Equinox Dance Company as well as a dance teacher. Her goal is to bring dance to as many people as possible. “Dance saved my life. I’m not sure how I would have survived that dark time without focusing on getting better and back to dance.”
STRAIGHT TALK WITH BRIA:
Q: How do you feel empowered?
A: I am really intrigued by the body’s capabilities. My doctors didn’t expect me to live through the night, and when I did, they said I would never dance again. I don’t remember anything about my first month of recovery, but I do remember having to pick up the pieces of my life as I got back into dancing again. It was heartbreaking to be constantly reminded of what my injury had taken from me. It wasn’t a simple recovery, and it took a lot of fighting, but I proved those doctors wrong. I feel empowered by pushing myself to see what I am physically capable of—can I jump higher, or run faster, or stretch farther, or lift something heavier? Yes, if I try hard enough. The feeling of overcoming something I was told I couldn’t, is one of the greatest feelings I have ever experienced
Q: What keeps you inspired?
A: This is going to sound lame but the body keeps me inspired. The body is capable of really extraordinary things if you are willing to push its limits. It is amazing to watch someone go from not being able to do something to performing it flawlessly, all just because they weren’t willing to give up. It is something I see every day—in my students and in myself. The harder you are willing to work, the more results you will see!
Q: What was the hardest part of your journey/experience?
A: It was really easy to fall into the comfort zone of thinking that my accident was the reason for not being able to turn as well or jump as high or remember as much. It took a while for me to realize that just because I had to work harder for something after my accident didn’t give me an excuse to not do it.
Q: Looking back now, is there anything you’d do differently?
A: It was easy to lose myself in the recovery process and only think about what I had lost. It took longer than it should have to realize what I had gained—a much bigger appreciation for life, a drive to achieve what the doctors said would be impossible, a purpose to help myself and others. Getting certified in group fitness after graduating, and teaching at Project C, I finally saw that the real miracle of my story was inspiring other people to see what was possible. Everyone has different goals and different obstacles, and in teaching I have the ability to help people work through those. I could have helped people sooner if I had just realized this.
Q: What advice would you give someone who was going through something similar?
A: You will cry, stumble, fall, bleed, hurt, and cry some more when recovering from something like this, but you must never, ever quit (this applies to any obstacle in life). If you are willing to work through the pain of whatever it is you are going through —and I mean physical pain, mental pain, heartache, anything— then you will come out stronger at the end of it. There were definitely times that I called my mom after an audition or a class in tears and was almost ready to give up. But I am lucky that I had my passion for dance to push me through. So whatever your obstacle is, find a reason to get through it stronger. Let that be your driving force to get you through the times when you’re ready to quit.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: My mom gave up her life to be with me in the hospital and while I lived in rehab. She came to be with me all day, every day. I don’t remember about a month of my life, so I can’t imagine how hard it was for her to see her headstrong and stubborn daughter weak and unstable. She became my rock, someone who reminded me of what I was capable of. Her support and belief in me were definitely crucial to the beginning stages of my recovery.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: In the fall I will be taking over as artistic director of Equinox Dance Company. I plan to get the company involved in more performances throughout the community to bring dance to as many people as possible. I will also be continuing to dance with Light Switch Dance Theatre in Rockville. I will be teaching more at Project C Studios in Westminster, as well as starting as the modern dance teacher at Hagerstown Community College. Additionally, I will be teaching adult dance and fitness classes for Frederick County Parks & Recreation. So basically, I will either be in my car driving to all these places, or on my feet teaching and dancing and moving. I am also getting married in October!
This article was originally printed in the Fall 2015 issue of Sass.
Bridge photo by Photography by Yara
Headshot by Mary Kate McKenna Photography