I Tried It: Trauma-Informed Dance Therapy

Rape and infertility made Fiona A. feel betrayed by her body, but trauma-based dance therapy put her back on the path of self-love.

By Fiona A., as told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen

Church camp. You’d think that would be a safe place, but that’s where I was when I was raped in 1994, the summer I turned 16. I flirted with a guy who was a year older than me and we met up one night to go out, but it went way beyond what I would have liked. He told me I was just “too sexy” and so he couldn’t resist. I eventually got pregnant.

My ultra-conservative family convinced me that it was my fault and that I should have the baby and give it up for adoption. The adoption was closed, so the few minutes I spent in the delivery room with my daughter are the only memories I have of her.

Due to a busy life and trust issues, I didn’t meet my husband Jay until 2014. We got married in 2015, when I was 37 and he was 41, and immediately started trying to have children. I naively assumed that since I got pregnant so easily the first time, it would be a cinch now.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. We tried for a year to have a baby on our own, then another year through excruciating fertility treatments. In 2018, we did in vitro fertilization (IVF) and were overjoyed when I became pregnant with twins. Unfortunately, our joy was short-lived. I lost the babies at 22 weeks due to an incompetent cervix. The doctor explained that there was nothing wrong with my babies. The explanation I got was that they died because my cervix “wasn’t doing its job of keeping them in.”

This broke me.

If there had been one small bright spot in my rape, it was that I knew my body could conceive and carry a baby. Except now, when I wanted it so badly, I couldn’t. I became furious with my body and I found many ways to punish it for its epic betrayal. I started marathon running and anorexia at the same time. I was not allowed to eat anything tasty and had to keep running, even after I had multiple stress fractures in my legs. I had to drink or take Xanax to fall asleep. I wasn’t actively suicidal, but every night I prayed that I would go to sleep and not wake up.

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A year after the twins’ deaths, Jay had enough of watching my self-destruct and enrolled me in an eating disorder day program. I met many other women with similar traumatic histories… and for the first time in my life I began to question the story I was told – that bad things happened because I was bad. I learned that the rape was something that happened to me, not something I invited. And I learned that many of my behaviors—mentally and physically—were normal responses to that trauma. My body had tried to protect me in the only way it knew how.

My therapist told me to reconnect with my body in a loving way and allow myself to process those memories and feelings both physically and intellectually.

She recommended a trauma-based dance therapy course—a fitness class led by a teacher trained in trauma and how it affects the body and brain. The class is designed to feel safe for people working with any type of trauma.

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I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I got: a room full of women of all ages and backgrounds dancing to everything from disco to hip-hop to salsa. The instructor/therapist led us through a series of choreographed dances. The others weren’t great dancers, in fact it felt chaotic and awkward, but they didn’t seem to care either. But I cared a lot and the more I danced, the more uncomfortable I became. At the end we did a “burlesque” dance. She turned the lights all the way down and told us we could be as sexy – or not – as we wanted and that this was our time to just be in our bodies.

I made it about 30 seconds before losing it during the first hip gyration. I felt so vulnerable and scared. I sat on the edge of the room until the song ended, tears just streaming down my cheeks. The instructor sat down next to me.

“Would you like to share what you feel?” she asked.

“I… CANNOT… BE… TOO… SEXY!”

I was shocked as I choked out the words and the memories of that night came back. I was raped because I was “too sexy”. It also played a part in having my children, who then died. I never wanted to think about sex again. I wanted to train and diet my body until it was sexless and no one would ever look at me like that again…not even Jay. (It turns out that one in 10 women experiences hypoactive sexual desire disorder.)

But I didn’t know how to say all that. So instead I said, “I’m sorry I’m crying.”

“I’m not sorry you’re crying,” she said. “And I don’t want you to stop until you’re ready.”

She asked if I wanted a hug. When I said “no,” she continued to sit next to me, not offended and not afraid, a warm presence in the dim room.

I felt embarrassed and shocked and frustrated and yet when I walked to my car 20 minutes later I felt… lighter. I wasn’t okay, but maybe I was. I wanted to go back because I wanted to feel that hope again.

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The dance class became part of my weekly routine, along with my talk and group therapy. I’ve been dancing every Monday night for almost two years now (during Covid we kept meeting but danced with masks on). The instructor and those women have become my rock. We dance, cry, laugh and share our lives.

Dancing allows me to be vulnerable and open in a safe setting. I learn new things, make friends and get a great endorphin rush. But perhaps most importantly, I’m learning that I’m not “too sexy.” There’s something very powerful about being just-right sexy, in a safe place, where I don’t worry about being touched or people staring at me or thinking I’m “too” something. I am starting to see my body in a beautiful way and appreciate the way it moves and flows.

Everything is not perfect. Jay and I eventually divorced in early 2022 after he decided that having biological children was something he couldn’t give up. Dancing helped me get through the divorce without blaming my body. In a way, it was a blessing because for the first time in my life, my sexuality is 100 percent just for me. Every day I feel more comfortable with who I am, because here in the dance studio I can just be myself.

Now when I see a new person in the class, with tears streaming down their cheeks, I dance with them or just sit next to them. I tell them: Dancing is more than therapy. It’s a powerful drug.

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Rape and infertility made Fiona A. feel betrayed by her body, but trauma-informed dance therapy set her back on the path of self-love

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