Aesha grew up in the inner city of Rochester, New York, where crime, gun violence and poverty were amongst the biggest threats to the community. At age 5, Aesha started dance, joining her older sister at the Joyce Winters School of Dance. The family was on a fixed income and couldn’t afford to send both girls to classes, but Aesha’s talent awarded a scholarship, which allowed her parents to enroll the young girl on the program. The Joyce Winters School was widely known as a launching pad for future dancers, and it had a reputation for winning competitions across the region and state.
Although initially being focused on competition dancing, Aesha soon discovered her love for ballet, moving to Timothy Draper’s dance school at the age of 11. Here, she was one of the only black girls; something she was used to after having grown up in an area where there were few students of colour. However, she recognized now how difficult it would be to prove her talent in the predominantly white world of ballet.
Through auditions and summer programs, Aesha came to the attention of the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City. The school offered her a scholarship. Yet, to accept, she would have to move to New York City. It was an opportunity she could not ignore, given that the school is often a steppingstone to the New York City Ballet. Whilst attending, Aesha received a prestigious award for dancer with “outstanding promise” and the acceptance as a corps member into the New York City Ballet at age 18. In 2000, she even made her way to the silver screen as the dance double for actress Zoe Saldana in the film Center Stage. Ash danced with the New York City Ballet for seven years. For most of the time, she was the lone black female—a role that carried with it pride and pressure.
In 2003, Ash left the City Ballet. She joined the internationally recognized Béjart Lausanne in Switzerland and performed as a soloist for several years before returning to the United States to dance in San Francisco with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, known for its contemporary interpretation of dance.
In 2007, at the age of 29, she retired from the ballet world. Yet years later, she put on her full ballerina attire of leotard, tutu and tights to once again tell the world that individuals like herself—women of color who grew up with limited means—could succeed anywhere they wanted. Alongside the help of a photographer, Aesha returned to her childhood neighbourhood to use the power of imagery and take the beauty of ballet to struggling communities, in hopes that photographs could show that the two worlds need not be separated by societal schisms and pre-constructed narratives.
That photo-shoot was a seed for the Swan Dreams Project. Almost seven years ago, Aesha mapped out a plan for workshops with children where they would be taught ballet, nutrition, and etiquette, herself as the lead instructor. In August, Aesha started her first full Swan Dreams Project weeklong camp. Nearly 30 children, aged 8 to 11, enrolled, almost all of them African-American or Latino and completely unfamiliar with ballet. Over five days, the youngsters learned ballet steps, with the goal being a choreographed performance at week’s end for their families and friends. If they could not visit the world that she has visited, she would try to bring it to them.
Aesha is now using a similar model to that of the Rochester camp in after-school programs at her children’s school in California. She often tells her students that her career and the doors it opened for her need not be alien to them. They do not have to focus on ballet—though, of course, Aesha wants to see more people of color in the ballet field—but they just need to know that, while there may be barriers, they can be breached. That they too could succeed in a world once shuttered to them.
In the past year, the project has received national and international attention, including an article in The Guardian in England and a segment on NBC News. Meanwhile, the number of minorities in the New York City Ballet is growing. While Aesha was once alone there, there are now three black women and six black men.