"Suck in the guts and squeeze the butts," Tyde-Courtney Edwards reminded the group of women in front of her as she slowly bent her knees in a plié.
She placed her right hand on her stomach and her left hand on her back as she explained the proper body placement for ballet. She then gave life advice to her students while they focused on their classical dance technique.
"The biggest thing you have to do is learn something from the pain you've gone through," Edwards said. "It's OK for something not to go the way you planned."
Edwards, 30, was leading a "healing lock-in" on a recent Saturday at a private studio on North Liberty Street in Baltimore through her organization Ballet After Dark, created in May 2015. The event for survivors of trauma focuses on healing mentally, physically and emotionally through ballet stretching, story sharing, fitness and meditation.
"The driving motivation behind the idea for the company was to create a warm and welcoming environment," Edwards said. "I wanted to create a space where disenfranchised women could come together from every level of trauma that they may have faced and learn a disciplined classical technique that will allow for them to reconnect with themselves."
Edwards says she was the victim of a sexual assault in 2012 and that ballet helped her regain her strength.
"After leaving my therapy sessions where the session is all about getting you to talk about your feelings, getting you to understand your feelings, when you walk into a dance studio they do not care," Edwards said. "It is strictly about you coming in, getting this work done, getting your technique together, making sure your technique is sound and it really created an opportunity for me to get lost in something healthy."
Ballet After Dark is a traveling organization that hosts several ballet and fitness workshops a month at various locations in Baltimore and surrounding areas. Edwards is a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts and attended various workshops and intensives including Alvin Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Joffrey, Kirov and the New York City Ballet. Her workshops, like the lock-ins, focus on the healing benefits, both emotionally and physically, of ballet and dance.
Brittany Iles, 34, of Glen Burnie, who took part in the three-hour healing lock-in, has been using the sessions to help cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. She says she was sexually assaulted while serving in the military.
"I feel so much better," she said after raising her arms up in a ballet fifth position and opening them out to the side. "I think that ballet is beautiful and coming from the background I have, I'm always trying to find a way to get past anxiety and depression. I like the fact that she gives you that avenue to just release and be comfortable and not feel like you have to be guarded."
Iles, who has served in the military for 12 years and is currently in the D.C. Air National Guard, says of her trauma, "I've experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military that caused me not to trust people and to be anxious in my life. You get a fear that keeps you from speaking up."
While The Baltimore Sun does not typically identify victims of sexual assault, both Iles and Edwards agreed to share their experience.
Iles said that she likes the honesty Edwards brings to her classes, making them more of a sharing and therapy session than a simple exercise class.
"She's herself. She's authentically herself," Iles said. "That's important these days because you just don't find people who are as open and willing to share and learn from each other."
Connecting with your body again after a sexual assault is an important part of the healing process, according to Lynn Davies, a licensed clinical professional counselor with a private practice in Towson.
"The language of trauma is non-verbal so talk therapy is pretty limited for people who have been through trauma because the experience is really in their bodies and it comes up through sensations, smells and images. It's not a verbal experience," Davies said. "Ballet along with meditation and maybe doing some breathing and self-soothing can help victims of trauma who are experiencing and feeling the trauma in their bodies over and over again. It's all about reconnecting them to their bodies in ways that are safe and gentle."
Dahlia Silberg, a licensed professional counselor and board-certified dance movement therapist through the Child Guidance Resource Centers based in Philadelphia, also believes that dance can be a tool to help victims of sexual assault and trauma.
"When something traumatic happens you don't just have a mental memory, but a body memory of it as well," Silberg said. "You need to reclaim the body and help the trauma survivor using a physical modality. Working with your body is essential in helping people with traumas heal."
After the hourlong ballet session, which focused on learning proper technique, the class of about half a dozen women shared their stories of trauma. Some are working through relationship problems. Others are battling depression.
For Marcia Shropshire, 46, of Baltimore, her trauma started when she was a child.
Her parents divorced when she was 12 and she finds the Ballet After Dark sessions helpful in sharing the pain of growing up with one parent and learning from the similar experiences of others.
"There are some things that I need to work on and fortunately the older I get the more I'm at ease with it, but when you don't have both parents at home it's very detrimental to your upbringing," Shropshire said. "It's great to share and to be able to bond with women I don't even know through storytelling and healing."
The lock-in ended with the participants kneeling on their yoga mats for a period of meditation, giving the women an alternative way to heal from their individual traumas.
Monique Mercer, who goes by the name of "Mahogany," facilitates meditation and healing touch work through her company, The Healing Sanctuary 444. Mercer runs the meditation session, partnering with Edwards for her lock-ins.
As the lights go down, Mercer says she tries to create a peaceful, soothing environment to help the women discover themselves.
"It's a joy to know that we're helping lots of women and we're having fun doing it and they're having fun doing it and it's just tapping into their sensuality and sexiness and helping them stand up and be empowered as women," Mercer said. "It's really a beautiful thing to see."