Photo Credit: Richie Gunzer
Beginning at a young age, Aesha Ash was told that it would be hard for her to make it in the ballet world. It wasn’t because she had bad feet, or a lack of talent, but it was because she was a woman of color. Thankfully, Ash paid no attention to those who doubted her and successfully worked as a professional ballerina for 13 years. Now retired from ballet, she runs a nonprofit called The Swan Dreams Project that she created in 2011. Through her nonprofit, Ash uses imagery and her career as a ballet dancer to challenge stereotypes that exist for women of color, particularly from inner-city communities.
Ash grew up in inner-city Rochester, New York, where things like crime and poverty plagued the community. When she was just 5-years-old, her dance teacher told her mom that Ash had potential in ballet, but not many women of color were able to progress in the ballet world. Ash knew that because of the many stereotypes and misrepresentations of black women in the media, that she would have to work twice as hard to achieve her dream of building a career in ballet.
She went on to study at the New York City School of American Ballet, then joined the New York City Ballet at age 18 where she remained for eight years dancing in numerous soloist and principal roles. Ash then traveled abroad to join the prestigious Bejart Ballet in Switzerland as a soloist but returned to the U.S. in 2005 to join Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet. After growing in her craft, she went freelance and began working with Morphoses, founded by Christopher Wheeldon.
Ash was featured in many publications like Dance Magazine, Bazaar, and Marie Claire, and she took on professional roles in the New York City Ballet Workout II and the Barbie Nutcracker. She was even cast as the principal dance double for actress Zoe Saldana in the movie Center Stage. Now retired, Ash is completely focused on using ballet to give back to under-privileged communities in a unique way.
After her remarkable success in the ballet world, Ash chose to go back to her old community to show people what they could make of their lives. She took images all around her childhood neighborhood, donned in her tutu and pointe shoes, and received a great response from community members. These images were an expression of The Swan Dreams Project’s goal, which is to convey the message that beauty and talent are everywhere. “I want the world to know that beauty and grace are not defined by status and race,” Ash told CNN’s Great Big Story. She even had one of her images go viral where she simply led two little girls onto the sidewalk and started teaching them ballet.
Photo Credit: PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project
Through The Swan Dreams Project, Ash has set out to show people that they are not limited by stereotypes nor by their environment, but only by their dreams. Using her ballet background, she’s single-handedly disproving negative misrepresentations that might be attached to women of color by creating positive, artistic images in an inner-city environment. Ash’s message has grown so much that she now is asked to take images and talk to youth in different communities all over the United States.
In addition to The Swan Dreams Project, Ash owns a boutique fitness studio called graceFIT in her now home of San Jose, California. She’s also taught free ballet fitness classes to adults and regularly holds free Swan Dreams Camps for underprivileged youth to introduce them to the art of dance. In short, not only was Ash one of the only women of color to grace the stages of the prestigious New York City School of American Ballet, but now she’s become the perfect role model for little girls of all races and socio-economic backgrounds who want to be just like her.