Arts & Culture

The Turning Point

A local dancer helps fellow trauma survivors reclaim their bodies—and their lives.

As Tyde-Courtney Edwards shifts her feet into first position, she closes her eyes. When she starts to feel familiar emotions creep in—doubt, shame, embarrassment—she glances down at her bare feet on the dance floor and then shuts her eyes again. With practiced precision, she slides her right leg out to the side and slowly peels her heel off the floor until all of the energy in her petite frame is concentrated in her perfectly pointed foot. Her mind is now quiet; there is no room in her thoughts for anything beyond her next movement.

As she eases her foot back into first position to complete her tendu demonstration, she opens her eyes to see 15 women and one man looking back at her expectantly, nervously shuffling into place. She cracks a wide smile and guides her students through their first exercise of the night.

When she calls out her signature line—“Suck in the guts and squeeze the butts!”—and hears laughter echoing around the Mt. Vernon studio, she remembers why it was worth all the work of rebuilding herself. And now, through Ballet After Dark, her ballet-based workshop for sexual and domestic assault survivors, she’s hoping to help others become whole again, too.

“I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I know some things that worked for me, and they might work for you, too,” she tells the class. “It all started with having to rediscover and re-fall in love with myself.”

“I had to be smart about how I was going to make my dreams happen, but I was getting there.”

Ballet was Edwards’ first love. She started taking classes at the age of 3 and decided to become a professional dancer the day she received her high-school acceptance letter into the dance program at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

At BSA, she worked her way through the rigorous curriculum, finding her strengths in quick, sharp movements at the ballet barre, as well as slow, drawn-out adagio work that always made her feel powerful. She felt captivated by the quiet control she had over her body while mastering a new exercise or combination. During certain sections of class, she often found herself smiling, “because I was so happy,” she says today.

After graduating from the program in 2005, Edwards spent the next several years working temporary jobs around Baltimore to support her frequent trips to Philadelphia and New York City for dance auditions. Between stints as a Baltimore City police cadet, a Comcast salesperson, and a manager at a Westminster doctor’s ofice, Edwards trained with the Peabody Conservatory, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She performed in music videos and graced the stage in multiple productions with the Maryland Ballet Theatre in Annapolis.

“Being a freelance dancer was such a hustle and a grind,” she recalls. “I had to be smart about how I was going to make my dreams happen, but I was getting there.”

That hard work would eventually pay off, when by the end of October 2012, Edwards was invited to audition for the renowned Bloc Talent Agency in New York City. She was feeling especially hopeful, as her boyfriend had also just proposed.

But then one night, less than a week before her audition, Edwards was reaching into the trunk of her car outside of her Howard County apartment when an unknown man came up behind her and hit her over the head.

“I went through phases where I wished he would’ve just killed me instead of having to go through this.”

Though she was barely conscious, Edwards felt herself being dragged behind the building and into the woods, where the stranger beat, raped, robbed, urinated on, and spit on her before fleeing the scene. The next time she opened her eyes, there was light peeking through the trees. Her arms were covered in scrapes, and sections of her hair were matted with mud. “The first thing I felt when I came to was shame and embarrassment,” she says.

With Edwards in a state of shock, her mother called an ambulance from that same parking lot to transport her to Howard County General Hospital. She then went to the police department, where she reported the attack and answered hours-worth of questions. She completed a rape kit and submitted all of her belongings—including her coat, tennis shoes, and empty purse—into evidence. But as she moved through each step, she couldn’t shake the grumbling comments she overheard from the officers during her ambulance ride—that they didn’t feel like dealing with all of the paperwork this would mandate, as she recalls.

By the time Edwards learned that her case was being handled as a robbery, the rest of her life had already started to unravel: her family expected her to move on within a matter of days; her fiancé stopped returning her calls. Shortly thereafter, she discovered she was pregnant as a result of the rape and had an abortion, crying to herself on the way home alone. The police department’s robbery detectives didn’t respond to her requests for updates on the case, leaving her overwhelmed with anger—both at them and with herself. She started drinking heavily and using drugs as means of coping with her trauma, and that winter, she hit her breaking point and checked herself into the psychiatric ward of the Howard County General Hospital.

After two weeks, she moved back into her mother’s home and spent the next eight months dealing with depression and agoraphobia, which developed after the attack. Terrified to leave the house, she avoided mirrors, showering, and any form of physical contact. “I went through phases where I wished that he would’ve just killed me instead of having to go through this,” she says. “That was very, very tough.”

Eventually, with a recommendation from a Howard County General nurse, Edwards started visiting TurnAround Inc., a counseling and service provider in Towson for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Working with a counselor there, along with weekly one-on-one and group therapy sessions, helped her navigate her emotions in a way she had not yet been able to. But Edwards still felt distant from her own body. She had dedicated her life to learning how to control her form through every leap, turn, and stretch, but the abuse and its aftermath broke the connection.

Finally determined to reclaim her body—and life—she stepped back into the dance studio for the first time since the attack. “I thought getting back into the studio would cure me,” she says. “I needed something to think about and focus on other than what
happened to me.”

Her worries about having to answer questions from classmates about her hiatus faded away once the music started. “When you’re in the studio, it’s okay to be so focused that you don’t talk to anyone,” she says. “Everyone is just there to dance, and I needed to feel that again.”

She gradually increased her studio time to multiple classes per week, slowly but surely relearning how to let people into her personal space, allowing her teachers to correct her hips during a battement kick or adjust her arm in an arabesque.

“Ballet was the only thing I could do outside of traditional therapy that made me feel like I was on the way to becoming myself again,” she says. “Getting stronger through the physical movement of dance therapy is what saved me.”

Years into her healing process, Edwards still found herself frustrated by the lack of recovery resources for trauma survivors. Therapy had helped her mental health, and ballet had improved her physical well-being, but she felt a desire to create a new alternative practice—one that would strengthen survivors through a mix of physical, mental, and spiritual healing.

“I knew I could use ballet as a tool of empowerment when it came to restoring feelings of grace and elegance in women who had suffered horrible traumas,” she says. “There are people who prefer to move rather than talk, and I understood that.”

So in May 2015, Edwards launched Ballet After Dark, a ballet-based fitness program that includes a self-care workshop for sexual and domestic assault survivors called “Reprocess. Rebuild. Reclaim Your Life.” The three-hour program begins with physical fundamentals, focusing on strength training and gentle ballet movements for any body type, skill level, or gender. (While the workshops are predominantly made up of women, male participants are welcome, too.) Edwards and a licensed mental health professional then lead the class through empowerment exercises such as daily mantras and self-care techniques, and facilitate open discussions about therapy and personal healing journeys. The workshop closes with a guided meditation for attendees to incorporate into their everyday lives.

“As women, we tend to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, and we often forget to create spaces for ourselves,” Edwards says. “We need more opportunities to escape from reality and have conversations that don’t revolve around pain.”

Since the first class nearly four years ago, Ballet After Dark has gained a loyal following of both trauma survivors and aspiring dancers looking for an intimidation-free way to learn ballet. After an overwhelming number of requests to bring the restorative workshop to other states, Edwards will take her program on the road this spring to one-day events in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Chicago.

The practice has also caught the attention of independent filmmakers Ayana Barber and Brittany Fennell, who have created a documentary about Ballet After Dark that will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival this April. The film was selected as one of the first projects produced by The Queen Collective, an initiative by Procter & Gamble and actress Queen Latifah’s production company, Flavor Unit.

While she’s humbled by the program’s popularity, Edwards’ motivation comes from her students, like Maria Roxbury, who has been a regular since the inaugural workshop.

Roxbury says she discovered the program while she was caretaking for her mother-in-law and needed an outlet to focus on herself. She left her first class feeling empowered, and over time, she wrote a poem to thank Edwards, who hung it on her refrigerator as a reminder of her purpose.

“She has helped put me back on solid ground,” says Roxbury.

“We need more opportunities to . . . have conversations that don’t revolve around pain

From her place at the front of the dance studio, Edwards leads attendees through an end-of-session discussion on how to push through hardships and setbacks as part of the recovery process.

“It’s important for me to have a family, a sisterhood, and a collective of people that I can heal and grow with,” Edwards tells the class, crediting helping other survivors for keeping her afloat. “And that’s why I’m grateful for you all.”

As the workshop ends and classmates shrug on their coats, give goodbye hugs, and head off to their evening plans, Edwards is still full of energy. Smiling to herself, she pulls a black knit sweater over her sports bra and heads out into the lobby to mingle with her regulars.

Spontaneously, they break out in a rendition of the theme song from Living Single, the ’90s sitcom starring Queen Latifah herself. Edwards grooves to the beat as they sing in unison, “Whenever this life gets tough, you gotta fight/with my homegirls standing to my left and my right. . .”

Although her case is still open, Edwards now feels confident that she can dance through whatever the next chapter of her life brings. As another workshop comes to a close, she’s standing tall and unafraid as she walks out into the night.

“I’m still becoming the woman that I’m supposed to be,” she says. “I don’t know who she is yet, but I know I’m on my way.”