Tiffany Geigel never thought she’d realize her dream of becoming a professional dancer.
Geigel, 33, was born with Jarcho-Levin Syndrome, a rare, genetic bone disorder which often results in a curved spine and a noticeably short neck and torso. As a kid, she thought little of her condition and never received any differential treatment — she even took dance classes with other children in her Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood.
However, she says, during her preteen years, Geigel’s dance instructor was “honest” with her.
“I didn’t think it was something that was possible. My dance teacher was like, ‘You have the technique, you have the legs and the arms and you’re beautiful.’ But the reality is you don’t look like what the ballet world wants,’ ” Geigel recalls. “I knew I wasn’t being lied to. I know how it is. I was like, ‘I would love to be a ballerina.’ But I knew it wasn’t realistic.”
As the years passed, Geigel would begin to realize just how different she was from her peers. She tells PEOPLE that, during high school, officials tried to block her from joining the band. Geigel says her mother constantly fought to have her included in student activities, despite objections from school leaders.
“That’s when I started to realize that I was different,” she tells PEOPLE. “I wasn’t dating because no boys liked me.”
With that, Geigel gave up her dream of dancing, and enrolled in college as a business major. However, she occasionally taught dance classes in New York, believing nothing else would be possible for her in the competitive industry.
“I saw myself working on Wall Street or something. I didn’t pursue [dancing] because I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t go on auditions. I wasn’t planning on being a performer. It wasn’t in my mind,” she says, adding that she committed to simply being a dance teacher and even changed her major to dance so she could better instruct her students. That, she says, proved to be a life-changing decision.
“Since I did that, it led me to where I am now,” Geigel says. “[My dance teacher] hired me and it snowballed into something else.”
Just a few years ago, Geigel caught the eye of Heidi Latsky, the owner of a New York City-based integrated company for dancers with disabilities. Latsky knew she wanted Geigel to join her dance company, but Geigel was hesitant about entering the professional dance world with her condition.
But in 2014, she finally accepted Latsky’s offer and officially joined Heidi Latsky Dance. With the company, she performs at least two shows a day during the spring season.
“I never thought I would be in a dance company in New York City performing ever,” Geigel says. “I never thought my photo, my face and body would be plastered in Times Square. All the things I never thought would happen, they’re happening!”
Although her dreams are coming true, Geigel says she faces ridicule and bullying almost every day in New York.
“It’s been rough. Walking down the street, just doing normal daily things, everybody’s staring at you. If I’m on the train, people see me and they get scared. They start laughing,” she says. “I’ve had people call me a reject. I’ve had people call me alien, I’m a monster, I should kill myself, ‘this is why natural selection exists, what kind of freak show is this?’ It’s not something I can ever get used to.”
Still, amidst all the negativity, Geigel says she is thankful for her family and friends that support her.
“I just try to go on with my life. I just keep going,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m not gonna let myself sulk and hide in my apartment because of how stupid how people are. I’m gonna live, that’s what I’m gonna do.”