I Tried It: How Trauma-Informed Dance Therapy Helped Me Love My Body Again
Rape and infertility left Fiona A. feeling betrayed by her body, but trauma-informed 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, yet that’s where I was when I was raped in 1994, the summer I turned 16. I’d been flirting with a boy a year older than me and one night we met up to make out, but things went a lot further than I had wanted. He told me I was just “too sexy” and so he couldn’t resist. I ended up pregnant.
My ultra-conservative family convinced me that it was my fault and I should have the baby and give it up for adoption. The adoption was closed so the few minutes I spent with my baby girl in the delivery room are the only memories I have of her.
Thanks to a busy life and trust issues, I didn’t meet my husband Jay until 2014. We married in 2015, when I was 37 and he was 41, and immediately started trying to have kids. I naively assumed that since I’d gotten pregnant so easily the first time, it would be a cakewalk now.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. We spent a year trying to have a baby on our own, and then another year going through excruciating fertility treatments. In 2018 we did 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 “didn’t do its job keeping them in.”
This broke me.
If there had been one tiny bright spot to my rape, it was that at least I knew my body could get pregnant and carry a baby. Except that now, when I desperately wanted to, it couldn’t. I became enraged at my body and I found many ways to punish it for its epic betrayal. I simultaneously took up marathon running and anorexia. I wasn’t allowed to eat anything enjoyable and I had to keep running, even after I got 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 I’d go to sleep and not wake up.
A year after the twins’ deaths, Jay had had enough of watching me self-destruct and enrolled me in a day program for eating disorders. I met a lot of other women with similar traumatic histories…and for the first time in my life, I began to question the story I’d been 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 a lot of my behaviors—mental and physical—were normal responses to that trauma. My body had been trying to keep me safe in the only way it knew how.
My therapist told me I needed to reconnect with my body in a loving way and allow myself to process those memories and feelings physically as well as intellectually.
She recommended a trauma-informed dance therapy class—a fitness class led by a teacher trained in trauma and the ways it affects the body and brain. The class was designed to feel safe for people working through any type of trauma.
Trauma-informed therapy: my first class
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 also didn’t seem to care. But I cared a lot and the more I danced, the more uncomfortable I got. At the end, we did a “burlesque” style dance. She turned the lights way down and told us that we could be as sexy — or not — as we liked and this was our time to just be in our bodies.
I made it about 30 seconds before I lost it during the first hip gyration. I felt so vulnerable and scared. I sat on the edge of the room until the song was over, tears just streaming down my face. The instructor came and sat next to me.
“Do you want to share what you’re feeling?” she asked.
“I… CAN’T… BE… TOO… SEXY!”
I was shocked as I choked the words out, memories of that night flooding back. Being “too sexy” got me raped. It also played a part in having my kids, who then died. I never wanted to even think about sex ever again. I wanted to exercise and diet my body until it was sexless and no one would ever look at me that way again…not even Jay. (It turns out 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 would like a hug. When I said “no” she continued to sit by me, not offended and not scared, a warm presence in the dusky room.
I felt embarrassed and horrified and frustrated and yet when I walked out to my car 20 minutes later I felt…lighter. I wasn’t OK, but maybe I could be. I wanted to go back because I wanted to feel that hope again.
The dance class became part of my weekly routine, along with my talk therapy and group therapy. I’ve been dancing every Monday night for nearly 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’m learning new things, making friends, and getting a great endorphin rush. But perhaps most importantly, I’m learning that I’m not “too sexy.” There’s something deeply powerful about getting to be just-right sexy, in a safe place, where I’m not worried about being touched or people staring at me or thinking I’m “too” anything. I am beginning to see my body in a beautiful way, appreciating the way it moves and flows.
Everything isn’t perfect. Jay and I ended up getting 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 get more comfortable with who I am because here in the dance studio I get to be just me.
Now when I see a new person in the class, with tears streaming down their face, I dance with them or just sit by them. I tell them: Dancing is more than therapy. It’s powerful medicine.