By Omenaa Boakye
Dancing creates freedom and joy known all too well by accomplished ballerina Aesha Ash. As a retired professional ballet dancer, she danced on some of the world’s grandest stages for 13 years. Growing up in an impoverished community in inner-city Rochester, New York, Ash decided at a young age that she wanted to redefine the typical stereotypes placed upon women of color from low-income communities and persevere in a career as a ballerina, an art form known to be very homogeneous. At 18 years old, Ash became one of the few women of color who have danced with the New York City Ballet, where she remained for eight years. Her career has seen her perform numerous soloist and principal roles for different companies throughout Europe, the United States and Australia.
Despite her success, Ash recalls often feeling lonely. “I did not see many images that looked like me. I would look in books and magazines and everything that was talking about a ballerina was every other image but my own. It was often a challenge to be the only woman of color—you’re in class, you’re the only one. You’re on stage, you’re the only one.” In 2011, Ash started the Swan Dreams Project, a charity that now works to expose more African American kids to ballet and tackle the lack of diversity within the industry. “I want to help change the demoralized, objectified and caricatured images of African American women by showing the world that beauty is not reserved for any particular race or socioeconomic background. I want our youth to know that they are not limited by stereotypes or by their environment, but only by their dreams,” says Ash.
In 2018, Ash expanded the Swan Dreams Project into a summer camp in her hometown. “The whole idea of the camp is to impart onto these kids everything I experienced as a ballet dancer. It was by those experiences that I feel empowered, that I’m not intimidated by any environment that I am put in,” says Ash. The summer camp is held for kids aged 9 to 13 and includes classes in ballet, nutrition, etiquette and art. Field trips and workshops with classical singers are also provided. “I want to expose the kids to a world outside their day-to-day, to different art forms and cultures. The more we are exposed to, the more our eyes, minds and hearts are open.” theswandreamsproject.org