NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (WPRI) — When Tori Andreozzi was 12 years old, her mother made her a promise that not even a tragic walk home from school could crush.
Andreozzi had danced as a younger child, but her mother Cathy said at some point, she changed her focus to karate.
Tori ultimately became a champion black belt and the confidence and tenacity tied to martial arts fit her personality.
“If there was someone who was bullied, she was right there to help,” Cathy said. “If someone didn’t have anything, she wanted to share with them.”
As successful as she was with karate, Tori asked her mom to take up dance again — and her mom promised her she could.
“We were all ready to get her back into dance,” Cathy said.
But four days after performing at a karate exhibition fundraiser, a walk home from a West Warwick bus stop went horribly wrong.
On March 26, 2003, Tori was hit by a drunken driver — leaving her with a severe brain injury.
Suddenly, Tori’s fighting spirit was needed just to make it to her 13th birthday.
“At first, we were focused on her survival,” Cathy said. “Somewhere along the way, it came to mind — she’ll never get married. She’ll never have children. She’ll never dance.”
A subtle, but strong sign that the long-ago promise was still possible came about three years ago, as Tori’s mom was dancing in a class.
“I noticed that her head lifted out of the headrest and suddenly my daughter was watching and following people moving on the dance floor,” Cathy recalled.
That slight movement was “rare” for her daughter.
“Is it the movement that catches her eye? Is it the music?” Cathy said. “Then, I thought ‘It’s being in this environment.’ It was the stimulation.”
Wheelchair dance classes didn’t really exist locally at the time, but Caleb and Rusina Converse gave it a try at their Narragansett dance studio.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago at the Fred Astaire National Dance Championships in Orlando, where Tori was the only seated dancer in the Showcase competition.
“Tori’s posture seems to change when they call her number and say, ‘next up Caleb and Tori,'” Cathy said.
She competed along with her mother and the Converses — and won big.
A few judges gave them a perfect score and overall they received a 99, winning the Top Showcase Performance.
The hardware shines, but not nearly as bright as the expression on Tori’s face as she glided across the dance floor to the song “Beauty and the Beast.”
“Something about her lifts in the chair, and her eyes change and a smile comes on her face,” Cathy said. “Your heart wants to burst.”
The Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation now pays for classes for disabled dancers to help them enjoy what Tori and her family discovered.
“She has the joy of dancing,” Cathy said. “It’s what she gets out of it as much as what she gives. She certainly gives when she’s on the dance floor.”