By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
Aesha Ash had already been retired from dancing for several years when the image flashed across the television screen. A familiar wave of frustration ran through her. She was in her living room and her daughter was playing at her feet. A magazine whose cover she graced lay on the coffee table. “It was a stereotypical image of a woman of color,” she remembers. “It was very vulgar, very loud. I just looked at my little girl.” Her eyes fell on the magazine in front of her. “I felt very sad. I thought to myself, what was all of that hard work and sacrifice for?”
Born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., Ash had spent much of her career as the only African-American ballerina at the famed New York City Ballet. Though she had taken jazz since she was a young girl, ballet wasn’t a goal until she was encouraged to do so as a teen. Ash, who now lives with her husband and two children near Silicon Valley explains, “I started ballet late and not with the natural talent of someone like Misty Copeland. I spent my entire career trying to catch up. I had to work one hundred and twenty percent.” Still, she fell in love with the dance and, driven to show the world that Black women also embodied the qualities typical of ballet characters, stayed committed. “I wanted to show the world that women of color and people from my community are not a stereotype. Ballet is the most elegant thing you can think of. It’s the antithesis of what one thinks of stereotypically as a woman of color.”
Ash’s ambitions were sustained by the love and support of her family. She stumbled a bit when she lost her sister to cancer soon after joining New York City Ballet, but leaned on her father to get her through days that were full of passion, wonder and challenge as she mastered her craft.
Ash had attended predominantly White institutions since elementary school and the regular onslaught of micro aggressions she had encountered then did not abate in the ballet world. She braved crushing despair, soldiering on partly due to a sense of duty. Ash doesn’t go into specifics but the scars from some of the more unpleasant aspects of her experience are evident in her voice. “I wanted to be a principal dancer not only to be a dancer but to have a platform to show the world, ‘Look, I’m a woman of color. I too and you too can be a princess or a fairy.’”
She left New York City Ballet in 2001 after she also lost her father to cancer. “At that point,” she recalls, “I found it very hard to continue.” Convinced by a fan not to give up dancing entirely, she danced with Switzerland’s Bejart Ballet for a couple of years, then Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet before retiring completely in 2008 at the age of 31; young even for a ballerina.
Ash focused, for the most part, on being a wife and mother; until that afternoon the troubling image flitted across her television screen. “I sat back and said to myself, ‘Do I have to take this? Do I have to accept this image? I wondered, why no one was doing more to counter it?” She soon took on the challenge herself, starting the Swan Dreams Project. Per the organization’s website, her mission is 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.”
At first she took images of herself in various settings, making sure to include pictures in her old inner city Rochester neighborhood as well. “I wanted to inspire kids in my community and it was important to them to know that I, a classically trained ballerina came from this community. I was so excited because that was exactly the reaction I got.” She posted the images on her social media pages and they soon went viral. Black women wrote to her, confessing the images had moved them to tears.
Today, Ash does speaking engagements, workshops, week-long camps and after school programs, all aimed, she explains, at “changing the way the world sees people of color, especially women and especially from inner city environments.”