How dancer Tooshay found freedom and purpose through freestyle dance while locked up in a Thai prison.
by Raquel Harrah
Five minutes. In just five minutes, the life of LaTasha Madson, who requested to go by Tooshay, changed forever. When she walked into Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok in October 1994, she thought she would board a plane to Paris and soon after be greeted by her wealthy new boyfriend’s family, where she could escape from homelessness and the hardships she faced in her native California. But five minutes after walking into the airport and setting down her bag, she was intercepted by an officer, detained, and cast away to Thailand’s notorious capital prison, colloquially called Bangkok Hilton. At 19 years old, she was accused of smuggling heroin. From there, it only got worse.
Today, Tooshay is 44 years old and is a proud fiancé and mother of four. But her past experience, which she commonly refers to as “the situation,” still haunts her. Her candor and openness about her struggles surprised me during our interview. Despite the rawness that still persists from her wounds, her tone was hopeful, passionate and formidable, especially when she talked about her upcoming business ventures and academic achievements (Tooshay has a master’s degree in health education and is currently pursuing her PhD). Through it all, Tooshay has found purpose, and is using her experience and tools from dance and her education to extend a hand to others, who like her, have been pushed down by life’s harsh blow.
Back-stabbed in Bangkok
“The reason why I ended up in prison, ultimately, was meeting a gentleman who introduced himself to me as being from Paris,” says Tooshay. Throughout the story, we will refer to him as Phillip, which is not his real name. “He was really well off. You could tell just the way he dressed and carried himself and he was really forward and went after me.”
They dated for three months during Tooshay’s first stay in Bangkok.
“He was just really nice. We shared a lot of our personal stories with each other. We really got to know each other.” Soon she would learn that she didn’t know Phillip at all. That the life he projected to Tooshay was all a lie.
Tooshay arrived in Bangkok when she was 18 years old with a plan to dance at a profitable nightclub. Freestyle Hip Hop was a form of expression for Tooshay and she had regularly booked gigs with rappers, singers and Gospel artists. She danced with a group called Swat Team, made up of all guys.
“I was one of only a handful of female dancers around at the time and so it was a big deal with having me in the group,” says Tooshay.
A former coworker at a clothing store in California was given the opportunity but could not go. Knowing that Tooshay danced as a Freestyle Hip Hop dancer, she suggested that Tooshay take her place. It seemed like a dream, especially after she met Phillip.
But once her visa was up, it was time to go back to California and start her life over.
“I did well for myself when I returned. I worked and had a pretty stable job, but life happened,” says Tooshay. “I was still working, but I was homeless and so I stayed here and there with friends. I would sleep in my car, things like that.”
During this time, Phillip called Tooshay’s sister’s house, where she would direct calls. Her sister paged her that she received a call. Tooshay was elated that Phillip had even remembered her and even more excited about his proposition to her. He asked her to go to Paris and Tooshay agreed.
Phillip arranged a flight for Tooshay from California to Thailand, and from there, they would travel to Paris together. She says when she arrived in Bangkok, he began to act strange. After spending some time together in Bangkok, they prepared to leave for Paris. He kept saying how excited he was for Tooshay to meet his family. She admits that he played the part well, even arranging calls with “family members” to express their excitement at meeting her. This behavior helped to quell some of Tooshay’s suspicions at his strange behavior.
Tooshay says he was agitated and annoyed at her packing. He wound up packing some of her belongings in a bag he had with no real explanation except to say that she didn’t pack well.
“So he took control of my packing and that’s how I ended up with drugs without my knowledge.”
Phillip drove her to the airport and then briskly told her he had to handle an emergency with a friend. While she was annoyed, she says she wanted to be strong and not be perceived as a needy girlfriend.
Tooshay says she wasn’t at the airport for more than five minutes when an officer grabbed her.
“The best way I could describe how I felt at the time was completely numb because how do you explain that? How do I get people to believe that I knew nothing?” says Tooshay. “That was really the challenging part and just trying to piece everything together. I didn’t understand what was going on and why there were drugs in the bag.”
Tooshay received the death penalty, which was reduced to a life sentence. She ended up serving nine years in a Thai prison for a crime she didn’t commit. She learned that Phillip had set her up and wasn’t who he claimed to be. After the initial shock and confusion subsided, she was angry.
“Emotionally, I was all over the map,” says Tooshay. “Some days I felt really inspired, some days I felt like, what am I living for? Some days I just felt really fearful.”
Tooshay says the fear gripped her so intensely that she suffered physical complications.
Her story was documented on the television show Locked Up Abroad, which aired on National Geographic channel in the U.S. The episode captured her time in prison, where she was intimidated, beaten and gave birth to a son. When Tooshay found out she was pregnant, she worried the child might be Phillip’s. When she gave birth, she realized the child was not Phillip’s, but an ex-boyfriend’s due to the child’s lighter skin tone (Phillip had darker skin while her ex-boyfriend had lighter skin). In the dark and decrepit prison hospital, her son provided a glimmer of hope. But her child was eventually separated from her, which dragged her down a dark hole of despair.
“I think I’m forever going to be going through some sort of healing process from the situation because I do have internal scars. Some consequences of that situation I do have to live with on a daily basis,” says Tooshay. We don’t talk about it, but I wonder if she thinks about her son, and the time lost. She has since reconnected with her son, who was under the care of her mother, but she still can’t turn back the clock on her firstborn’s first steps and first words.
When life seemed at its bleakest, Tooshay returned to her passion—dance—and found healing and purpose.
Freedom through dance behind bars
“I think I get misunderstood that I’m just naturally floating around like this strong person. No, I have to work at this,” says Tooshay.
She claims her spirituality allowed her to see light in the darkness, and the tools that she’s gathered over the years have been instrumental in her continued healing. I find this humble admission incredibly inspiring. Courage and strength may not be born traits, but instead forged like metal. If Tooshay can still see the beauty in life, why can’t I during life’s darkest moments?
When Tooshay was overcome with despair in her cell in prison, she turned to her first tool—dance. She still loves freestyle hip hop, even 25 years later. I can hear the smile stretch across her face when she talks about dance and how she can still bust a move with the youngsters. Her Instagram includes beautiful pictures that capture the poetic movements of freestyle hip hop.
“It allows me to be free. There’s no right or wrong in dance,” says Tooshay. After living in a binary world—free or imprisoned, right or wrong, homeless or homeowner—the fluidity of dance was freeing. Therapeutic. “What it [freestyle hip hop] does is it allows you to freely express yourself. It’s impromptu, just in the moment. It’s therapy to be in the moment.”
When Tooshay first received her life sentence, she thought she’d never dance again. She picked up art and began teaching Aerobics classes in Lard Yao two to three years into her prison sentence as a way to express herself. She began using the Aerobics classes as an opportunity to take moments to freestyle dance before or after classes. Soon after she started doing this, she was allowed to use space near one of the factories in the prison to put on a pair of headphones and dance.
“When we were released from our cells in the morning, this is what I would do. I would go to my spot, put on my headphones, and dance,” says Tooshay. “No one bothered me, but everyone just allowed me to be free to express myself.”
During this time, a band was put together in prison and the officers and band members asked Tooshay to do choreography. They would perform concerts throughout the year—so, in reality, Tooshay never stopped dancing.
In prison, Tooshay could close her eyes and let her body think for her through dance. Behind bars, she could find her own freedom.
“It’s freeing and I do hope to provide some instructions to other people to teach them how to use dance in that way, in the freestyle way to just be ok,” says Tooshay.
Bridges and Bars
Tooshay hopes to combine her passion for art, dance and fitness to help prisoners and those going through mental health issues with her business, Freedomspace, a platform for health education and promotion through fitness, dance and art. For now, eEverything is online but Tooshay hopes to evolve the business to physical locations where she can provide workshops in targeted areas.
“My heart currently is drawn toward individuals that are having challenges with mental health and prisoners; people that are due to be released or have been released,” says Tooshay. “Because I know what that’s like and there’s not a lot of help out there for prisoners and ex-prisoners and people that are going through mental health issues. It’s a misunderstood group.”
Her work doesn’t end there. Tooshay and her fiancé are focusing on helping people through their nonprofit called Bridges and Bars that speaks to both of their experiences. Tooshay’s fiancé, who is a clinical therapist now, struggled with a deep depression and was in the act of jumping off a bridge before a stranger stopped him. With a nod to Tooshay’s experience in Thailand as well, Bridges and Bars will focus on mental health awareness.
What I found most inspirational about Tooshay’s story is that despite the constant blows, the unfairness of it all, Tooshay doesn’t see herself as a victim. She still struggles, admitting that it takes her about 10 to 20 percent more effort than others she knows just to live, but she’s been able to find purpose in her circumstances and use that as a launchpad to help others.
“I keep circling back to the same things in life. My story, it didn’t just happen. There’s something there for me to use and reach out and help other people,” says Tooshay. “Yeah, I could have made some different choices. I could have paid attention to certain signs, but why not me?
“For whatever reason, the universe selected me to be that one to go through something so traumatic to be able to make an impact on others.”
She lists off other change agents like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Mahatma Gandhi, who have directly been impacted by injustices, stood defiantly in the face of life’s seemingly targeted attacks, and used that experience to try to build a better world.
“I’m a survivor, I’m not a victim.”