Starving for the Truth: Ashley Latvala on the realities of food culture in ballet.

Today’s Conversation is with Ashley Latvala. Ashley, born and raised in Washington State, USA, was on track to becoming a professional ballet dancer up until the end of high school. She loved ballet from a young age and worked vigorously towards her goals. But due to unhealthy pressures of unrealistic ideals, her passion for ballet was sucked away when her mind and body began to crumble under the weight of these false standards. Her story is one everyone needs to hear. It shows a side of ballet that can be hard to come to grips with. But it isn’t a story with a sad ending. Ashley recounts her years of training that eventually lead her to throw ballet in the garbage, and walk away thinking she’d never look back. Many years later, however, she found herself back in the studio being healed by the one thing that she thought broke her. 

“I am from Seattle and I started dancing when I was about five or six years old. My grandmother signed me up for it and I loved it. She danced for fun, and she thought, ‘I’d love for you to have the chance to dance’. So yes, thanks, Grandma. I went to a small private school at first.”

As Ashley progressed in her small private school one of her teachers saw all the potential Ashley had. Wanting to help Ashley, she sat her down, at the age of twelve, with her parents, to talk to them about the possibilities of a career in ballet.

“At first my teacher, I think I was 12 ish, she sat down with me and my parents, ‘if you would like to pursue a professional career, you should try, you should go for it! And I can help you.’ And so I was weighing either Pacific Northwest Ballet School or Washington Academy of Performing Arts Conservatory, which was kind of an experimental full-day school program. I chose the full-day program in the end; there were more performing opportunities, and it was closer to home. Also, you got a lot more individual attention.”

Ashley worked with this teacher in her private school for a few more years until she was old enough to join the Washington Academy of Performing Arts. She stayed there for her last three years of high school.

On asking Ashley if she enjoyed her time there, I could see the bittersweet memories flooding in. Artistically Ashley thrived her first couple of years, but there was an underlying problem that ended up turning the tables on her experience there. 

“I enjoyed it. We got to dance all day, performed a lot, and learned a lot of repertoire. I received a lot of praise and encouragement my first couple of years since I was progressing really fast. As long as I was feeling that all was going fantastic, I was great. But, there was also a lot of pressure, a lot of body pressure, at that school. There was an unhealthy culture about food. I had already started going down that track a couple of years before starting the full-day program, and was already brainwashed into believing I had to be skeletal thin. This culture was one of the main downsides of that school. It was rampant. Every single person that I knew was struggling with this issue, but it was completely ignored, and it was even perpetuated, by the staff. We were body-shamed, and it was very traumatic.”

Now looking back, however, Ashley sees her teachers through a lens of compassion, understanding that they were simply functioning under the same ideals and standards that had been set on them.

“I know our teachers really did love us, but I think they were, perhaps, as deceived as we were about the necessity of the skin and bones look. That was back in the ’90s and things now seem to be improving in many places.”

Recognizing body-shaming is hard at times. It often isn’t as blunt as, ‘you’re fat’, though it can be. Sometimes it comes in the ways of subtle jokes, weird comments, and comparisons. Those sharp continual digs can be incredibly manipulative, twisted, deceptive, and in the end, damaging.

“I remember lots of comments like, ‘Okay, you’re going on vacation for a long weekend, or, you have a week off for Christmas. Be careful with food.’ Or when we came back they would say, ‘Oh, my goodness, you look like cinnamon rolls.’ Other times they’d say, ‘I see you all had a nice vacation. Now we’re going to work.’ Or also, ‘you’re all fat.’ And I mean, we were ridiculously thin.

One time I remember she gave me the tutu from one of our smallest dancers. And I was one of the tallest and I told her, ‘this isn’t gonna fit me, this was sewn for Carry’. The teacher would say, ‘Yeah, it’s not gonna fit you because you’re fat.’ I was not fat, and that girl was so tiny! You’re young teenage girls and don’t know what to do with that. So, we believed them.”

Just like how any belief always leads to action, those unhealthy beliefs lead to very unhealthy actions. And not only were they misled by those who should have taught and protected them, but a community formed around this way of thinking that escalated the harm caused not only in Ashley’s life but in the lives of her classmates too. 

“We got into, really crazy eating habits and really weird food trends. We would encourage each other because we’re living our daily life together all day, every day. For example, we went, as a group, on the pop popcorn diet. Or when one girl threw away her lunch I thought that girl was so strong! We were not eating anything. We had a musical theatre department that thought we were crazy. We were so nuts. And young! You don’t know better. All of the authorities that should have been caring for us and should have been helping us and protecting us, were not. I ended up in some pretty destructive habits with regards to food.”

“By my last year, I was definitely in a very bad cycle of eating, thoughts, and injuries. It was just not good. Not a healthy place. But thankfully, I realized this is not healthy. I need to leave. At the time, we would have been auditioning for companies. But I knew, I’m not in a good place, I’m going to move on.”

For any dancer, quitting is one of the hardest decisions they can ever make. And for Ashley, it was hard to let go of ballet, but living with this unhealthy lifestyle and mindset was so much worse.

“I felt sad, obviously, because I loved dancing. And, I think, if I could have had the emotional burden taken away, I would have loved to have kept dancing, but I didn’t see how the two could exist together. How I could be a healthy person emotionally and dance at the same time… I wish someone older, someone with experience would have shown me how to do that, because I didn’t see those two working together. I did feel free when I realized, I don’t have to do this. My parents never forced me to do it in the first place. It was my choice. They gave me the full freedom to quit when I wanted to. And so I did feel a freedom from those psychological patterns in quitting and by being in a different community of people where they weren’t perpetuating these things that were unhealthy.”

Ashley experienced both an immediate liberation as well as gradual healing from the inner and physical hurt caused during her time training to be a ballerina. 

“It took a couple of years, I’d say. I think there was an immediate freedom from a lot of those things. I started going to church and I started realizing that my life had purpose, apart from my own pursuits and ambitions, successes or failures. That was key for me. Understanding that I, just as a person, have innate value and worth; I don’t need to do all these things to try to earn my value as a human being. So I think there was a huge amount of freedom and redemption in that sense immediately. But then, of course, we’re all people in process. I think it took me another couple of years to be able to say, I actually don’t think those things or in those patterns at all anymore.”

After quitting ballet at 18, Ashley went to university to study linguistics. Then later, she got married and moved to Russia. In her mind ballet was a thing of the past, but little did she know that she’d be finding herself in a studio again very soon. 

“I was in a bad car accident. I got major whiplash, and was told by the chiropractor who fixed up my back, ‘you’re probably gonna have problems 10 years down the road.’ That was right before we moved to Russia. I did end up, 11 years down the road, having all this pain and different problems. When a doctor looked at my back and she asked, ‘are you, an athlete?’ I was like, oh, yeah, I was a dancer. And she said, ‘well, that explains your spine. I can tell that your spine grew with a strong musculature. And now you don’t have that and you’re going to constantly be in pain unless you like strengthen your spine.’ I decided to go back to ballet for my back injury. And then yeah, God just totally redeemed my love of ballet through that!”

From there her passion for ballet grew once again as she had the freedom to fall in love with the art in its purest form, detached from the harmful baggage that it once carried. And not only that, but she found that it brought healing to more than just her back.

“I was dancing for myself. There was no pressure and no ambition. It was for my back, but ended up realizing, ‘Oh! I actually still like dancing!’ It was neat because I got a lot of really great feedback from my teachers that really helped heal some of those traumatized areas of myself. I was so affirmed by my teachers who, even after my huge break, were asking if I was a professional and even asking why I wasn’t performing somewhere. It was so healing for my heart to feel encouragement associated with ballet again. Then through relationships with those teachers I ended up switching gears and studying methodology, teaching ballet, and doing dance therapy at an orphanage. Seeing God use dance as something healing for people instead as something harmful was pretty cool.” 

Since moving to Russia, Ashley has taught ballet, dance therapy and worked as a translator for Vaganova. Sadly, last year, 2020, she and her family were told they need to leave Russia, but she still works closely with dancers, and ballet remains to be a beautiful and important part of her life. 

At one point Ashley mentioned the way she grieved over ballet once more when she realized that quitting wasn’t the only option.

“I think I was happy when I first quit because that’s all I understood as the option for being free from those unhealthy things. Later in my adult life, when I came back to ballet in a different way I realized there was another option. And so I think I had a second grief over having lost what I loved when it could have been redeemed instead. I had to take some time to officially grieve.”

With that being said, I asked Ashley what advice she’d give to girls who might find themselves in a similar situation as she once did. Her words were beautiful words of wisdom that aren’t spoken over young dancers enough. 

“Recognize your worth as a human being, and that nothing is worth sacrificing your health or your well-being. It’s not worth it. When we think, ‘I have to do harmful things in order to earn the acceptance, love, or status that I feel that I need’, then we don’t value ourselves and we don’t consider ourselves worthy of care and love. Realize that innately you have those things and that we don’t need to earn them through harmful practices.

I would say also, be brave and find somebody to confide in about those things; someone who would be able to help you. I did not have the capacity, the ability, to look at my body and see it the way it really was. When I looked in the mirror, I saw one thing. But when I look back on my pictures now, that’s not what I see in there. I think I needed somebody to love me and to tell me what was true about myself. Maturity-wise, at that age, you’re growing and you’re trying to understand life, search for your identity and worth; it’s just a hard age, in general. But then to live in the ballet world simultaneously, it’s a bit intense. Especially if it’s a group mindset! I think that’s the hardest situation. Then it’s an entire group mentality that needs to be addressed. Somebody has got to be brave to seek out some help.”

You could be that person! You don’t have to harm yourself. There is freedom. You can love ballet and your body at the same time! It’s possible! For those of you who have been scarred by this side of the ballet world, take hope, there still can be so much redemption! Ballet is beautiful, but like many things, it can be twisted and used to be something harmful. I hope that we can all grow in knowing the value we each have, the beautiful individuality we were made with, and learn to say no to the lies, yes to the truth, and simply dance the dance we love so much.

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