How One Organization is Using Dance to Help Survivors of Sexual Abuse

August 31, 2020

Isabella Grosso knows firsthand how dance can help heal survivors of sexual abuse. And it became her mission to share this gift with other survivors through her L.A.-based organization, She-Is.

The nonprofit is dedicated to providing a supportive environment for young female survivors of sexual abuse and sex trafficking, inspiring them to regain control of their bodies through the healing power of dance. “Sometimes we experience things in life that go beyond words. Sexual abuse is one of those things for many survivors,” says Grosso, who is a survivor herself. “That trauma and stress can get locked in the body, and body-based practices can invite movement into the spaces that are storing our pain.”

Grosso began studying dance at a young age and has had a career performing with Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. In 2013, searching for a community of strong women, she became involved with Women Empowered, an L.A.-based organization where she mentored survivors of sexual abuse. “Through Women Empowered, I joined a mentor program where I would teach dance at shelters and after-school programs for teens,” Grosso says. Her volunteer network at Women Empowered soon introduced her to another organization, Children of the Night, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and helping young people recover from sex trafficking and prostitution. “Children of the Night is where I fell in love with helping girls reconnect with their bodies. I saw myself in them, and knew I wanted to share with them what continues to help me heal,” Grosso says.

A She-Is team member leading dance class with the Daughters of Cambodia (courtesy Grosso)

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Child Protective Services estimates that between 2009 and 2013, 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse. Grosso knew from her experiences with Women Empowered and Children of the Night that she wanted to take the healing she experienced through dance and make that the central focus of her own initiative. “I wanted to focus on teaching dance to survivors, and that’s why I started She-Is in 2014.” Once the organization was founded, Grosso and her team began to teach classes, fundraise, and create dance videos to start raising awareness. They now teach dance to survivors in the L.A. area for six to eight weeks at a time, with a focus on creating a safe space for self-love, body ownership, and positive relationships.

After beginning to teach at shelters in 2014, She-Is quickly expanded to other cities, including Palm Springs, San Diego, and New York. International trips became a part of the organization’s outreach after two board members met the Todd Morrison, director for Destiny Rescue in Cambodia, which raises awareness about sexual abuse and sex trafficking overseas.

“After talking with him, we saw a great opportunity to join forces to help additional survivors, and expanded our work into Thailand and Cambodia,” Grosso says. When they travel overseas, Grosso and her team usually spend about two weeks working with a partner organization to host dance classes for survivors. Their trip typically culminates in a dance performance, where their students can show what they’ve learned to staff and others at the organization.

She-Is founder Isabella Grosso (third from right) and the She-Is team (courtesy Grosso)

Grosso looks forward to expanding to new locations in the future. “Sexual abuse and sex trafficking are unfortunately global issues, so wherever we can access and help, we will do our part to make a difference,” she says. She had hoped to travel to Thailand or Cambodia on another trip later this year, but the pandemic put those plans on pause. For the time being, she’s been staying connected to the women she works with via dance classes on Instagram and Zoom. In the future, she hopes to open dance studios both in L.A. and abroad. “Ultimately, dance is what saved me, so my goal is to teach dance to as many survivors as I can,” she says.