When North Vancouver resident Ashley Coupal was a young girl, her parents noticed her talent for dance. When they played music at home, Coupal would begin to move, and surprisingly on rhythm, for someone of her age.
So they did what many parents would do: they enrolled Coupal in ballet classes. Fast-forward to 2018 and Coupal, who is now a senior professional student at Vancouver’s Goh Ballet Academy with the goal of becoming a prima ballerina, has just achieved a major feat in the ballet world. At the age of 15, she is the first Canadian ever to have won a Gold Medal in the World Ballet Competition Finals event which took place June 10 to 16 in Orlando, Florida.
The international competition, which saw dancers age nine to 24 from 27 nations compete including the Philippines, Korea, China, Italy and the U.S., is one of the most respected in the industry. And though Coupal has been training between six to seven afternoons a week after spending her mornings studying at Carson Graham Secondary school, this success was not a given.
Throughout the competition in which she danced in the Pre-Professional category (14-16 years of age), Coupal was sitting in solid second place. But it was the last two dances, including the final Round 3 solo ballet performance where she achieved a near perfect score of 9.850, that boosted her to first place to take home the gold.
When asked how it felt to win such a coveted title, Coupal says, “It was incredible. I couldn’t believe when they called my name. I couldn’t have done it without Chan (Hon Goh) and her father (Choo Chiat Goh, who also works with Goh Ballet Academy). He really pulled out the artistic side of me.”
Goh, the prima ballerina who runs the prestigious Goh Ballet Academy says, “I’m very proud that a local student, especially one from the North Shore, is making her mark on the world stage. The competition consisted of so many jurors of international ranking. It’s a great vote of confidence for Goh Ballet.”
Goh and another Goh Ballet Academy instructor, Olga Iakovlevskaya, were also recognized at the World Ballet Competition: the two teachers received Best Teacher awards for their dedicated work with Coupal.
Along with the support of her teachers and family, Coupal also cites hard work, prayer, thorough warm-ups, and visualizing techniques as helping her perform at her best in her final two World Ballet Competition dances. “[When I visualize] I picture myself doing the whole routine exactly how I want to do it … It helps me get into the zone and it keeps my nerves down,” she says over the phone from New York City, where she is currently doing a five-week summer intensive training at the American Ballet Theatre.
Her ability to embody the characters she was portraying in her performances was also important, since the judges were marking dancers on their artistic performance as well as their technical abilities. In one dance, Coupal played the aristocratic Paquita; in another, the elegant Giselle.
Coupal says she celebrated the win in Orlando with her father, who is a great supporter and accompanies her to all of her competitions. “Dad and I celebrated by going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and going out to a nice dinner,” says the young dancer.
Coupal and her father also have a series of pre-competition rituals. “We have our secret handshake that we do. He always gives me pep talks, helps me stretch, makes sure I’m organized and on time, and of course, carries my luggage!” Coupal says.
This is the type of support Coupal will continue to need as she strives to achieve her goal of becoming a principal dancer with a top company. “The American Ballet Theatre is definitely where I want to end up,” she says. “I have been watching their ballets on DVD since I was a baby.” Coupal is currently excelling in her training in Goh Ballet Academy’s academic/ballet program and in 2019 she’ll graduate to the Goh Ballet Youth Company.
In the coming months Coupal will participate in two more competitions for which she will prepare with Chan Hon Goh: the Global Dance Challenge taking place Aug. 7 to 15 in Vancouver and another competition taking place in China in October. Coupal will also be starting rehearsals for the 10th anniversary performance of Goh Ballet’s The Nutcracker running at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Dec. 21 to 23.
For aspiring ballet dancers who want to be where Coupal is one day, she has these words of advice: “Don’t give up in any condition. Know you’re worth it. Whatever you love doing, pursue it and work hard.”