If you’re like many women, there was probably one point in your childhood where you thought being a ballerina was in your future. For Tyde-Courtney Edwards, she actually made that dream a reality.
The 31-year-old Baltimore City resident started dancing at the age of three and her plan was to become a classically trained touring dancer. “That did not go as planned, which is a reality for most dancers,” she said.
According to Edwards, she was given a lot of trouble on her dancing journey based on the fact that she was curvy and embraced her natural hair. But that didn’t stop her from going after her dreams. What did stop her though, for some time, was a vicious sexual assault that stripped her of her ability to feel safe again. She stayed in her home, stopped taking care of herself and was in a dark place for some time. It unexpectedly took an episode of a classic show and her love of dance to get Edwards back out into the world and back feeling comfortable in her own skin. “I had to fight for that,” she said. “I had to work for that.”
And it was that work that inspired her to create Ballet After Dark. It’s an organization that provides ballet-based fitness classes, athletic conditioning programs, open dance classes, self-care workshops, mental health resources, self-defense classes and a space in general where survivors of sexual and domestic abuse and all traumas can come together and practice self-care. They strengthen and heal bodies that have been harmed, and in turn, reclaim their lives. While ballet is a big part of the organization, as Edwards put it, “It goes beyond them learning plies.”
We talked to her about the ups and downs of being a Black ballerina, the attack that changed her life, how she was able to rebuild, and in turn, help other women do the same.
MadameNoire: What kind of work were you doing to build your dancing career before Ballet After Dark? I know you said you wanted to be a touring dancer, but that didn’t go as planned.
Tyde-Courtney Edwards: While searching for work and going on auditions, I was able to maintain my livelihood by teaching and finding different gigs. From time to time I would be lucky to get some type of performance gig, but it might be for one day here. It might pay $75 there, $50 another. It was just not stable and it was very, very difficult as a Black ballerina to find something where I wouldn’t be cast to the back row or where I wouldn’t be encouraged to just leave the ballet company altogether and just go for a modern company or to go for a hip-hop company. I had all this training and I had this grace and this elegance and I knew what I could do, but there was nobody who was really willing to take a chance on me because I didn’t look like everybody else. That hurt me a lot.
When you say it was because you didn’t look like everybody else, are you referring to your skin or your body shape?
Mainly because of my physicality. Most dancers, average ballet dancers, are about 5-foot-5. I’m 5-foot-1 1/2. Plus, I was always really, really proud of my nappy hair. If I would audition with my hair in a pony puff, I would get bullied, I would get called names. I would get called “ghetto.” My shoes would go missing at auditions. Also, because I am a curvy woman, it was easy to stand out at auditions, and not in a good way. There would be comments made about how wide my hips would be in comparison to the other dancers. But I was always the one they would call to demonstrate because my technique is sound, honey [laughs]. You can’t come for me. So I would demonstrate at the bar or in the center, but at the end of the audition I would get waitlisted. There were also times when I was younger and a lot curvier, a lot thicker. I would have to wear two sports bras under my leotard. They would call me a “distraction” because I jiggled too much. Some would even ask me to leave. My appearance wasn’t sleek enough. I was doing all of this extra work to hide my curves so they would consider me for a job. I did that for years and years and years until it got to a point where I was like, “What am I doing?”
So while you were dealing with these setbacks, when did this assault on you take place?
That happened in October of 2012. I was actually working at a medical office in Westminster, Maryland at the time and I was in between auditioning. I was leaving work one night and going to my home. I was taking bags out of my trunk and not paying attention — every time I tell this story I always make mention of how painfully unaware I was of my surroundings. Not to say that I placed myself in a particular situation, but when I look back, there could have been things I did to prevent this. I was not paying attention and before I knew it I was hit in the head and dragged into the woods. I was assaulted and left. When I woke up, fortunately for me, I was of sound mind enough for me to go to the police and go through that whole sh-t storm of an investigation. Eventually, my case went to the robbery department because I was robbed also. They let robbery push it until they just stopped pursuing it. I learned then and there how much of an inconvenience it is to be a victim of sexual assault. It’s too much paperwork. They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to deal with it. They would rather try to convince you that it didn’t happen at all or tell you that something else occurred and have you be ok with that.
You ended up becoming reclusive after your attack and the failed investigation into it. You also became pregnant because of it and had to have an abortion. Tell me about how you coped with that time.
That was really a difficult time. I had allowed myself to fall into a drastic spiral of self-harm and decline. I let myself go through a lot of things alone. My behavior following everything pushed a lot of people away and that was because I was not confronting a lot of things. I wasn’t dealing with things head-on. I had no interest in myself and I had no interest in anything happening outside of my home. I would barely do anything as far as hygiene was concerned. I just did not care. I had anxiety attacks when I thought about leaving the house.
So how were you able to rebuild? What did that take and where did ballet fit in?
I’ve always been someone who smokes weed. Always [laughs]. I have no shame about it. Pills are not something I rely on. I didn’t take antidepressants. My therapy just came from my love of marijana and dance. That’s how I helped myself get to a place where I can help others to find their journey to heal. And then one day I was watching Sex and the City and it was the episode where Charlotte had suffered a miscarriage and went into this depression. She watched the E! True Hollywood Story of Elizabeth Taylor and how her life was up and down. What Charlotte took from it was the way she landed on her feet every single time. As Charlotte is watching this episode, you can see her start to come to life. She would eventually reclaim her joy and sense of womanhood. I knew it was fictional, but you never know where your inspiration will come from. I was inspired by her moment of being down and her ambition to not be down any longer. It encouraged and inspired me to make little moves that would get me out of the house. When I was comfortable enough to make a move, I went to ballet. I just started to feel comfortable. I slowly started to remember what it was about ballet and dance that helped me reclaim my femininity back.
How did your rebuilding process inspire you to create Ballet After Dark?
The program was born out of necessity. There was no place for me to go where I could work on reclaiming my body. The therapists that are provided to you are literally just mental health services. There was nowhere I could go to where I would be a part of a safe, warm welcoming space where I could work through my trauma. There wasn’t a space where I could connect with other survivors of trauma so that we could work on things together. A lot of spaces that existed were primarily for white women and their trauma. It wasn’t open to all of the trauma that just comes with being a Black woman. There was really no place for me to go. I could either go to therapy or I could go to ballet class. But there are several elements that need to be focused on when you heal. And that inspired me to conceptualize this program. Sometimes we just need a space to go where we can sit with one of our sisters and cry. There are times where I can’t even get through workshops because somebody lost their job and that was traumatic, or someone is going through a breakup. I always say, the program wasn’t just created for survivors of domestic and sexual assault. It’s for anyone who is experiencing trauma at any level. There are so many ways people are affected by trauma on a day-to-day basis and they don’t feel like they have anywhere to go. I knew that if it could help me, it could very well help someone else.
Why was it important to help women not only through sharing their pain but by moving, dancing and being active?
Because strength is important. Part of reclaiming your power is getting fit and building your strength. You need to become fortified, basically. The physical aspect of the program focuses on instilling them with fitness fundamentals so they can begin the journey to building strength. I teach them how to do exercises properly. We learn an abdominal routine, properly. We break down how to do crunches, properly. We break down how to do push-ups, properly. Everyone hates when I teach push-ups. I don’t give a sh-t [laughs]. Push-ups are the most effective way for anybody to build upper body strength. Because if you were in a situation where you were being attacked, you need to be able to push this motherf–ker off of you so you can get away. So this is why the physical part of the program is so important. It goes beyond us infusing ballet fundamentals into it so you do feel elegant, you do feel you are actually learning something. But it is about making sure you’re strong enough and at least of strong mind enough where if you find yourself in a situation, you can react quick enough to get out of it. Not to fight them, not to think that you can take them down, but the goal is for you to be strong and ready enough for you to get out of the situation.
You started your career with so many barriers to your ballet opportunities. And while you didn’t get to be a touring dancer just yet, you’re been able to use your gifts to do something even greater. You’re helping others heal and take part in something they might not have thought they would be able to. Why is that so important to you?
It’s been very, very important considering this was a style of dance created for one particular demographic. To be able to create an environment where it appeals to various body types and skin types, it’s groundbreaking. And it’s very, very important. I created a space where anybody could feel like they are a ballerina and that speaks volumes. When you teach children ballet, it would be the moms who are waiting in the hallway who would be peeking into classes and they would say, “I wish I would have taken ballet” or “I always wanted to be a ballerina.” And now we have this space where you can be 60 years old, you can have all of the curves and all of the fluff and be one. You can walk into a space where someone is going to instill in you so much good juju that you walk out feeling like you’re on cloud nine. I’m just into making my girls feel good.