A diverse group of people stand in a line across a stage, with the audience in shadow in the foreground. They hold their arms crossed in front of them.

From Drills to Dance

Stories that vibrate in the bones

Grantee spotlight:

Healing and transformation through movement

Exit12 Dance Company is a nonprofit organization co-founded in 2007 by Roman Baca, a former U.S. Marine and ballet dancer. The company uses dance as a medium for expressing the experiences of veterans and promoting healing from the physical and emotional scars of war. The heart of Exit12’s program is an eight-week workshop designed specifically for veterans. It provides participants with space to communicate their feelings nonverbally, which can be particularly beneficial for those who find it difficult to talk about their experiences.

In 2022, Exit12 received an inaugural Creative Forces Community Engagement grant to support its workshop series. In 2023, this program culminated in a public performance on the Intrepid Museum in New York City, housed on the WWII aircraft carrier Intrepid. Participants showcased what they learned to a thrilled audience of friends, family, and supporters. The first-hand stories of the veterans shared here show how the arts can be a powerful tool for healing and transformation. Programs like this provide a space for expression and create a sense of belonging and empowerment for those who have served our country.

Dãmasa Doyle, U.S. Navy veteran. Photo by Sarah Westlake

“It feels like water flowing, like the wind, like love and care. When I’m dancing with others, it feels like a kind of embrace I’ve never had before.”

Dãmasa Doyle, U.S. Navy veteran and Exit12 program participant

Participant Spotlight:

Image of a white male with short brown hair wearing a t-shirt with an image of President Lincoln while looking to the right. There is a historic military plane in the background.
Anthony Roberts, Army veteran, during a rehearsal for Exit 12’s Truths Colliding in May 2023. Photo by Alberto Vasari

Anthony Roberts

Anthony Roberts is a retired U.S. Army officer with a 30-year career behind him. From Baltimore’s rough neighborhoods, he joined the military to escape a youth marred by tragedy. His career in the Army, marked by experiences from Fort Benning to Afghanistan, shaped him profoundly. A graduate of The New School in New York City with a Masters of Fine Arts, his poetry has been published in Southerly Literary Journal, The Other Voices Poetry Anthology, and Vox Poetica, among others. He has also published two books: Pigtown and The Clearing Barrel.

Dãmasa Doyle

Dãmasa Doyle is a U.S. Navy veteran, born and raised in Chicago with five sisters and three brothers in a close-knit family. She left Chicago at 19 and joined the Navy, just as her Vietnam veteran father had done. Going directly from basic training to Japan, she trained as a Cryptologist and was stationed there for three years, coming to love the routines, the order, and everything about Japanese culture. From there, she went into high fashion modeling for 15 years, then the hospitality industry. She now works in the wellness field. 

Dãmasa Doyle, U.S. Navy veteran. Photo by Sarah Westlake

“We are each finding our own ways through, and that’s beautiful, but we can’t do any of this alone. We can’t always heal, even when we think we can. We need community, people standing beside us who understand; we need people to catch us before we fall. Being together in movement, in words, motion, song, dance, and ritual gets us to support our own and each other’s journeys into civilian life. We reach out to those who may feel like they are drowning, and together, we can rise.”

Dãmasa Doyle, U.S. Navy veteran and Exit12 program participant

Healing through creative expression

Dance is a powerful form of expression and can be a tool for people dealing with trauma.

For Dãmasa, the arts have been a lifelong companion, aiding her in navigating the complexities of life. Her involvement with Exit12 has deepened this connection, allowing her to find solace and strength in her creative pursuits. The act of storytelling, whether through dance, writing, or music, serves as a bridge connecting her to her ancestors and a sense of communal history. This narrative underscores the essential role of creative expression in not only coping with personal traumas but also in fostering a deep sense of belonging and understanding within a community.

Dãmasa shared that “the writing prompt exercises we did with Exit12 came easily for me. It took a lot of courage to record our writing and to listen to my voice telling my story. As a Black woman, it’s not always possible to have the opportunity to share my story, but I feel safe speaking and dancing within this group that feels like family. ”

Despite no prior experience in dance and some initial reservations, Anthony found that movement allowed him to process emotions differently than words. He describes his initial experience with dance as tense and blocked, yet gradually, it became a channel for self-expression and healing. The transformation wasn’t just physical; it was deeply psychological and emotional.

How does dance feel? I feel like I look like Joe Cocker after happy hour…but that’s okay. I’m still very uncertain, very tense until I’m actually doing it. I’ve definitely felt a sense of release, peace, coming to terms with what happened through the movement.”

Anthony Roberts, U.S. Army veteran and Exit12 program participant
A white man and black woman dance side-by-side on the deck of the Intrepid Museum.
Anthony and Dãmasa in rehearsal. Photo by Alberto Vasari

From service to civilian life

The transition from military service to civilian life often presents unique challenges, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress, re-integration into civilian society, and finding new means of self-expression and identity. In providing a structured creative outlet for emotional expression, Exit12 creates community to combat isolation. The routine and rigor of a multi-week course can provide familiar structure, aiding in the adjustment to a less regimented civilian lifestyle.

“It’s been a very hard adjustment…you feel adrift,” Anthony shared about his transition to civilian life. “I’m no longer ‘Major Roberts,’ I’m no longer ‘Sir.’ I have to dress myself in regular clothes every day. Even in my new career — I realize that interactions are different, even language is different.”

A group of people stand in a circle being led through a dance exercise on the deck of the Intrepid, with military planes and the Manhattan skyline behind them
Exit12 program participants rehearse on the deck of the Intrepid Museum. Photo by Alberto Vasari

Fostering joyful connection

Dãmasa and Anthony’s experiences with Exit12 underscore the essential role of art in fostering community and understanding. The shared language of movement creates a vital bond among veterans, offering a sanctuary where words are unnecessary. This sense of unspoken understanding and mutual respect is a powerful antidote to isolation, highlighting the importance of community in the healing process. Their stories are just two experiences from the program that illustrate how art can be a conduit for joy, connection, and profound personal transformation.

A group of dancers on stage with arms outstretched. An older white man with white hair is in the center of the frame, flanked by a younger white man and a woman of color in a headscarf and bright yellow skirt.
Anthony, Dãmasa, and other program participants perform on the Intrepid. Photo by Alberto Vasari

“It’s been in some ways like a homecoming, being with people who just ‘get it.’ There is a deep underlying emotion and feeling of connection. We’re all working through something, whether it’s someone whose war ended before I was born, who’s still dealing with some of the things that took place there. Or somebody who may not necessarily be dealing with combat-related trauma, but trauma associated with their service.  Knowing that really adds a degree of solemnity to what we do, even beneath the veneer or the shared humor.”

Anthony Roberts, U.S. Army veteran and Exit12 program participant
A man with dark hair wearing a black shirt that says "Exit 12 Dance Company" in white letters stands in the center of a group of male and female adults standing in a line and holding hands.
Exit12 co-founder Roman Baca speaks with veterans and company dancers prior to their performance on the Intrepid. Photo by Alberto Vasari