There is a specific image that stood out to Aesha Ash when she was studying to become a professional dancer at the School of American Ballet in New York City. The image, hanging on a wall, showed Black ballerina Andrea Long who had been part of the school before Ash joined. On the toughest of days Ash would stare at the picture and think, “Okay, Aesha, pick yourself up. You can do this, you can do this, you can do this.”
In August 2020, Ash became the first Black female member of the permanent faculty in the School of American Ballet’s 86-year history. She is also the creator and founder of The Swan Dreams Project. Its mission is to use ballet and photography as a way to combat the objectification of Black women and stereotypes.
Giving Ballet a Chance
Ash grew up in Rochester, New York, a place still near and dear to her heart. Starting out she did not plan to study ballet. As a youngster, Ash studied jazz and lyrical dance with aspirations of appearing on Broadway. There were competitions, but Ash wasn’t a fan of trying to beat out other girls. She simply wanted to dance and perform. When a teacher suggested learning ballet would help her become a better dancer, she gave it a shot.
“Other forms of dance came much easier to me,” Ash recalls. “Ballet was very, very hard. It was definitely something that did not feel natural. As I got older, I liked that challenge. It was something that made me push myself further in the art and it was an art that I love. At some point I began taking ballet more seriously.”
While she took classes, Ash and her mother began noticing other ballet dancers were not around during the summer. Asking questions led them realize ballet summer schools existed and some were even affiliated with big companies. It was also during this time Ash’s mother was warned her daughter would face many challenges in ballet as a woman of color.
“Hearing that, I was like, ‘Okay, now I am absolutely doing this,’” Ash said. “The reason I pushed so hard is because I was an inner-city kid who went to a suburban school. From a young age I knew what it was like to feel other and to deal with both macro and microaggressions. There has always been something inside of me that wanted to prove I was more than a stereotype and it just seemed natural to use ballet to push back against myths about women of color.”
A Professional Ballerina
As a teenager Ash went on to have a leading role in the School of American Ballet’s annual Workshop Performances. In 1996, she joined City Ballet as a full-time performer. Ash understood that for many Black women and girls she now served as a beacon of inspiration, just as Andrea Long’s image had been for her years earlier. Yet there was also an extreme heaviness. Ash says many times during her career she did not feel fully accepted because of her race, which often scraped against her needs as an artist. In one ballet blog, the writer suggested Ash’s Black body was a distraction from the performance.
“When life gets tough, when things are challenging in your day-to-day life, you look to your art,” Ash reflects. “You get in that studio and just get lost. And it’s the place where you come alive, and you feel alive, and you feel like you can be fully present. That voice inside of you can finally sing. Yet, when you’re a minority, it’s different. There’s still some holding back because you don’t know if you’re 100 percent accepted, even in an artistic environment. You find yourself quieting down and making yourself smaller in a space that is demanding you perform and be the center of attention. Therein lies heaviness and weight.”
After her father died, Ash decided to leave City Ballet. She considered giving up dancing altogether, but Ramon Flowers, then a friend of a friend, would not hear of it. He connected Ash with Maurice Béjart, who then ran the Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Switzerland. She auditioned and went on to dance as a soloist with Béjart for two years. In 2005, Ash returned to the United States to join Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet in San Francisco, followed by time with Morphoses, a group founded by Christopher Wheeldon.
The Swan Dreams Project
Then, in 2009, Ash decided it was finally time to hang up her pointe slippers. She got married and embraced motherhood with the same enthusiasm she had given to dancing. Time with her family gave Ash moments of reflection about her career. Although she was no longer performing professionally, Ash had an inkling she was still meant to do something with ballet.
That something became The Swan Dreams Project. Ash had the idea when thinking back to the Andrea Long picture and the reach of powerful images. She decided to have herself photographed on the streets of Rochester in full ballerina regalia while talking with children. At the time she had a very limited budget, so Facebook proved to be the easiest way to distribute the pictures.
“I was really nervous to post the images there, because I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, Aesha Ash has been out of the game for so long and she’s now trying to come back,’” Ash said. “That couldn’t have been further from the truth. When I took the images, I told the photographer, ‘Listen, this is not a ballet shoot. It’s not about hitting pretty poses, leaping through the air. Look how high her leg is. I want you to capture the essence of a ballerina. And it’s important that you capture that essence in my hometown environment.’”
Belonging in the World of Ballet
“We are all very multi-faceted and that of course includes women of color,” Ash continues. “When one thinks about a ballerina, they think of someone very ethereal, very angelic, very fairylike. That counters how women of color are often portrayed by mainstream media. This was very much about stripping down stereotypes and showing humanity. The project also counters perceptions of lower income communities. To stop the belief that there are no dreams, hopes and aspirations in these neighborhoods. The pictures are about every community having kids with talent who deserve opportunities and outlets. Beauty is not reserved for any particular race or socio-economic background.”
Once the pictures were live, Ash’s inbox began filling up with messages. Many came from older women who expressed affection for the images as they took them back to when they were young girls and starting out in dance. Ash went on to offer free dance lessons and participated in programs with Girls Inc. When one of the girls in a Girls Inc. class found out Ash was the ballet teacher, she looked as if she were seeing a unicorn.
Today The Swan Dreams Project continues with camps in Rochester. In 2019, Ash gave a talk at TEDxRochester. Its focus? Are we limiting the talents, ambitions and possibilities of our youth – boxing them in by constraints of prejudice, stereotypes and narrow expectations?
Ash hopes her appointment to the School of American Ballet will allow more Black women and other women of color to feel they belong in the world of ballet. That no one at the school has to settle for a simple image hanging on a wall. Instead they have inspiration in-person, up front, leading class.
Images provided by Aesha Ash