Trauma Healing and Breaking Through Survivor Stereotypes with Ballet

An Interview with Ballet After Dark Founder, Tyde-Courtney Edwards

How did Ballet After Dark come to be?

It was born purely out of necessity. I was searching for places that would allow me to heal various aspects of myself. I didn’t just need a psychiatrist or a psychologist. I experienced so many problems being matched with the proper psychologist. When you look for mental health professionals, you’re actually going shopping. If you don’t get that one that really connects with you, encourages you to speak, encourages you to dig deep within yourself to really test your limits as far as your healing goes, nothing is going to happen. That’s what was happening to me.

I needed something to care about, to fall in love with. Ballet had always been my first love, always. it was very easy and natural for me to gravitate back toward it. Being a student was what I wanted most. I didn’t want to be the girl who was raped, I didn’t want to be pitied, I didn’t want to be a victim, I just wanted to walk in and to take class. That was the first step. Once I started recognizing how powerful that was, the notion of movement and using it as a tool to reconnect with your body, it just made sense. I knew that there were women, and men, out there, looking for a space like this.

There are a lot of people who believe that when you survive any type of trauma, you’re supposed to survive in a very specific way. I did not want to be meek. Once I got my strength, I didn’t want to be apologetic and I didn’t want to be scared. I was ready to talk. I was ready to take steps necessary for me to reclaim my life. There was nowhere to go to do it. So I had to do it myself, I had to figure it out. And here we are.

Tell me about your first class.

The very first classes were dedicated to empowering women through ballet, using the movement to make them feel graceful and confident and regal. It wasn’t so much about me sharing about what I had been through. It wasn’t even about talking about my struggle as a curvy ballerina. That lasted for about two months and I had to ask myself, what are the things that I need, what are the things that I am missing? If I had to relive this horrible experience all over again, what would be the thing that I would need immediately for my support system? My family wasn’t there. My behavior had changed so drastically following my attack and following the treatment that I received from the police department that I lost a lot of friends. I let relationships dissolve because I didn’t know how to express myself. I didn’t know how to share with people. I needed to think about all of that, all that I lost as a result of me not healing properly. From that I created the format for the workshop series.

The layout of the workshop is set up to focus on three elements of self care: physical, mental, and spiritual. The physical portion walks you through basic Vaganova ballet technique and fitness fundamentals. We also infuse a little bit of choreography and things like that so it’s fun but there’s a lesson there. Everyone will learn things they can implement immediately.

When you being your journey of healing, there’s a lot of pressure you put on yourself to be a normal person again. To be a fully functioning member of society who is not considered bruised or broken or battered or unworthy of love. There’s a lot of pressure because we just want to hurry up and get back to normal. This program helps you realize that you heal at your own pace. There’s nothing wrong with you taking a year or 20 years.

One thing I am very proud of is that it’s not a program exclusive only to survivors. I have women who are disenfranchised at various levels: they’ve been divorced, they just lost their job, they can’t pay rent this month. They’re having trouble figuring out ways of pursuing their own path. It’s not just about survivors of trauma being sourced to me. It’s a program that stands to empower people on various levels.

Has there been any push-back to your work?

The overall notion when you are healing from trauma is that you are supposed to heal a specific way. I’m supposed to be quiet, embarrassed, shamed. I’m not supposed to be confident, I’m not supposed to be sexy at all. I’m not supposed to have that type of love for myself. The fact that I am a dancer and that I use my body and imagery as a way to reclaim my body and my power is something that is often misconstrued.

The fact that I am a dancer and that I use my body and imagery as a way to reclaim my body and my power is something that is often misconstrued.

Because I have a curvy figure and I will wear dance clothes, I will get a lot of backlash about having too many curves shown. There have been articles written that say, what kind of message is she trying to send to survivors now when she’s doing the splits in bikinis? This is all before they realize that I have a company, that I’m out here doing work. This is just commentary based on photos. It’s a really good example of how rape culture is perpetuated among the masses. I catch it more from women than anyone. I am shamed more by women. I take it as an opportunity to educate. I don’t have time to hate. I’m on a mission.

When you’re doing things like this - developing and conceptualizing ways to heal - there are always going to be things you overlook. I try to be very positive and I try to count my blessings. It’s very easy for women, especially shapely women, to be categorized in a specific form of dance as it relates to entertainment. I don’t want to be on a pole, I don’t want to be in music videos.

I’m fighting to break barriers to use ballet as the classical discipline… yes it can be sensual but it doesn’t have to be over sexualized and that’s where the mistake is coming from when women use dance as a means for empowerment. Most of the time, it’s not even to make us feel sexy, per se. It’s more so about that spark of confidence that we need for whatever reason we need it. It’s a testament to how google-eyed the world is that they can take something as pure and innocent as movement, something that is so universal, and pervert it to the point where it’s just to be sexy or nasty at that. The other thing that I struggle with is getting women to take an interest in it because it is ballet.

Ballet is considered to be boring, or difficult to the point where nobody wants to try it. There are several struggles using it but, I love it.

What is special about the body as a place for healing?

You have to love yourself before anything. I used to do these exercises, that we take to the ladies in the workshops: I would stand in front of the mirror, pick parts of my body and make myself say nice things about that part no matter how ugly I thought it was, no matter how much I didn’t want to look at it. It was extremely vital to me reconnecting with myself. The connection is so important I can’t explain it. You have to take the time to discover yourself, to talk to yourself, to figure out how you are. And then love that person.

Where would you be if you hadn’t found dance?

I honestly think that because I had this outlet, it contributed to my healing. Had I just gone down the regular path of one on one counseling, I would have been very unhappy and I would have continued to be a shell of my former self. It doesn’t have to be dance. You have to fall in love with something. You have to find it and you have to grasp on to it. You have to fall into it, get lost in it, throw yourself into it, you have to commit to it. Slowly, slowly, your love and your passion and your drive for whatever this is will help you work through things. I don’t care if it’s a sport, art, cooking… when we don’t have that outlet, it’s really easy for us to fall into other damaging behaviors.

What’s the vision from here?

The goal in general is to create safe spaces, globally. There’s a global initiative under ballet after dark and it is to build a network of survivors to act as each others support system. I do want women to facilitate their own workshops. I can’t do it by myself! It takes a village to make movements like this happen. I would love to have a global initiative of women coming together. Non dancers coming together, learning this program, coming into this space where we’re using ballet as a tool for heal.

What advice do you have for people who are interested in using their creative talents to do something good in the world?

Believe in yourself. Nobody is going to believe in your dreams more than you. In a world of no, you have to create your own yes. That has been my mantra.

Believe in yourself. Nobody is going to believe in your dreams more than you. In a world of no, you have to create your own yes. That has been my mantra.

At one point, a partner of mine made a comment about how he thought, maybe we should consider scaling back on how I use nudity in my work. I listened to him explain how he thought this was the best thing to do because there were particular organizations I wanted to appeal to. He told me that my image basically was an oxymoron in regards to women’s rights and self appreciation because people tend to take women who use nudity in any type of way in a negative light.

I am a rape survivor. The overall stigma is that I’m supposed to heal a specific way. I’m supposed to be quiet. I’m supposed to be so full of guilt, I’m supposed to be ashamed at the fact that I got pregnant during this ordeal. I’m supposed to be made to suffer in silence. My “risqué” goes beyond being risqué, it serves a greater purpose. When I explained that to him he said, You know what, you’re right. I apologize. I never thought about it that way. I never thought about how you are using your body to fight.

I still have my struggles but at the end of the day, I think about what I’ve created and the impact that it’s had and it’s only been a year. I couldn’t walk away from this if I wanted to.