With every arabesque, every jete and every pirouette, members of Baltimore’s Ballet After Dark dance away their pain.
The group, which was founded in 2014 by dancer Tyde-Courtney Edwards, toe-shoed their way into the national consciousness this summer when they performed during the audition segment of the NBC’s reality television show, “America’s Got Talent.”
The group might not have made the show’s finale. But, they made their point.
“We’re trauma survivors and dancers that use performance to reclaim relationships with our bodies and lives using the healing power of dance,” Edwards, 35, said during the broadcast, which NBC network says reaches an estimated six million homes.
Edwards has been dancing since she was 3 years old. A graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, she trained with such prominent troupes as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
But it wasn’t until Edwards reached her late 20s that she discovered her life’s mission: using rhythmic movement to music to heal those who have survived trauma.
The petite dancer said she didn’t hear the man sneak up behind her on that night in 2012 when she popped open the trunk of her car, which was parked near her Howard County home. The man struck Edwards in the head with a rock, dragged her into nearby woods and sexually assaulted her. Edwards was unconscious during the attack and never saw the man’s face. The rapist has never been arrested, she said.
In the months that followed, Edwards searched for a healing program with a somatic focus. Because her body had been used as a weapon against her, she instinctively knew that her body had to be the tool that helped her recover. When she couldn’t find the program she needed, she created her own.
As Asya Shaw, Ballet After Dark’s dance therapist explains their philosophy:
“Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transferred. Moving helps us channel and focus that energy.
“I might not have the words to describe feeling peaceful. But, I can lie on the floor and imagine melting. I might not have the words to explain rage. But I can keep doing pushups until I have gotten the rage out of my arms.”
Now, Ballet After Dark offers about 70 workshops per semester at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center in Baltimore. Participants range in age from preschool to senior citizens who are survivors of such traumas as sexual or domestic abuse, gun violence, homelessness or addiction. Course offerings range from traditional dance classes to yoga and self-defense to aqua ballet at a nearby pool.
“When mothers send their babies to me, they become my babies,” Edwards said. “And my babies will grow up to be great. They don’t have a choice. They will understand what their options are in the life that happens outside of these four walls.”
Ballet After Dark workshops teach participants to use movement to calm and focus their minds. Trauma keeps survivors trapped in an endless loop of the past, Shaw said. Dancing, in contrast, demands that they fully inhabit the present.
“Yes, there is a before,” Shaw said. “There is a ‘then.’ But, your body only knows right now. And right now, you are in this room. Right now, you are safe.”
From the beginning, Edwards knew her organization had to include a performance component, if only to refute damaging assumptions that too often get made about the victims of violence.
“Unfortunately the overall consensus from society is that sexual assault survivors should be filled with shame and heal quietly and out of the public view,” Edwards said. “But we are not damaged. We are not broken. We will move forward.”
Ballet After Dark’s youth ensemble performs most weekends in the fall and spring and recently, the group’s horizons have been expanding outside Maryland. Edwards is sorting through invitations to appear in Virginia and Texas. In addition, four possible international concerts are being planned: in Jamaica, Cuba and possibly, Europe.
“When the show brought us out to California, it was the first time that some of these kids had ever been on a plane,” Edwards said. “Every experience like this that they can have empowers them a little bit more.”
Over the years, Edwards has built the organization from the ground up. Now, Ballet After Dark has an annual operating budget in the low six figures. Now, it has a board of directors. It has one full-time employee — Edwards — and about half a dozen part-time employees.
Her goal is to obtain official tax-exempt status for Ballet After Dark by the end of 2022.
“Tyde realizes that Ballet After Dark is bigger than she is,” said Brittany Harris, chairwoman of Ballet After Dark’s board of directors.
“Ballet After Dark is about every single person who has ever had an experience with domestic violence or sexual assault. It’s about making sure they don’t feel helpless.
“It’s about giving them the resources they need to heal and thrive.”
For more information about Ballet After Dark’s programs and workshops or to book a performance by the youth ensemble, visit balletafterdark.com.