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SheCAN Champion: Aesha Ash

SheCAN Champion: Aesha Ash

Aesha Ash was born in 1977 in Rochester, New York. At the age of 13, she was accepted into the School of American Ballet (SAB), the training centre for the New York City Ballet (NYC Ballet).Following her time at the SAB, when Ash was 18, she became a corps member of the NYC Ballet, dancing for the company for nearly eight years.

At 13 years of age, past the time when most girls begin ballet lessons, Ash was accepted into what is recognized as one of the most prominent classical ballet schools in the world and the official ballet school of the New York City Ballet, the School of American Ballet (SAB).

Ash proved to be such a tremendously gifted dancer that in only a few years, during her last year with SAB, she received the Mae L. Wien Award for Outstanding Promise. At age 18, Ash became a corps member of City Ballet. That same year, 1996, at the beginning of her professional career, Ash was the only African American woman member of City Ballet, and, for most of the next seven and a half years that she was with the company, she remained so.

When recounting on her time at the NYC ballet, Ash said, “I wasn’t just dancing for myself… I was trying to battle stereotypes and biases on that stage every single night. And I succeeded in some and I failed in others.”

(image: credits to The Swan Dreams Project)

Ash’s strong and graceful pointe work is on full display in the 2000 movie Center Stage, where she appears as Zoe Saldana’s dance double.

In 2003, Ash left City Ballet to join the famed Béjart Ballet in Lausanne, Switzerland as a soloist. While enjoying success in Europe with Béjart, Ash nevertheless often felt isolated, and, after two years in Switzerland, she returned to the United States to join Alonzo King LINES Ballet in San Francisco. The company is innovative in its use of dancers trained in classical ballet while employing improvisational and contemporary choreography. Ash found a revival of her love for dancing with King’s troupe.

Recalling how empowered and encouraged she felt when, as a student at SAB, she would see African American ballerina Andrea Long’s picture on the staircase in the dorms of the school, Ash was inspired to create The Swan Dreams Project. The project is Ash’s vehicle to try to “change the hearts and minds of the ballet audience” and to introduce the world of classical ballet to inner city youth. Ash especially wants to inspire young women of colour to believe in their own strength and beauty, and to show the world that beauty and grace are not defined by race or socio-economic status.

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Although Ash is retired from dancing, in addition to working on The Swan Dreams Project, she continues to teach ballet and Pilates part time.

In 2020, she became the first Black female member of the School of American Ballet’s permanent faculty. Aesha Ash’s prestigious career has included world class roles. Yet she’s now on to a different mission, with three big goals. She wishes to see ballet become more diverse. She hopes to inspire youth from rough areas to pursue their dreams. And she wants to show the world that tough environments can’t hold back talented people, especially those with ambition.

(image: Ms. Ash, teaching at the School of American Ballet, in 2018, says: “I hope that as a teacher I can help shape and form dancers.”
Credit: Courtney Collins, via School of American Ballet)

Ballet is a beautiful yet complex sport, as it combines intricate dance techniques with artistic elements such as music and costume, conveying an impactful story to an audience. The overt lack of diversity within ballet has remained unchanged since its origination hundreds of years ago. As a result, this issue suggests a more significant and convoluted problem that plagues the dance industry. One of implicit discrimination of Blackness, objectification and stereotyping of Black bodies, and systemic racism. This makes Aesha Ash’s story that much more impactful.

Read more on Aesha Ash’s accomplishments throughout her years of ballet here.

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