Dreams know no color, neither does talent. Yet, stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice often succeed in their goal- to limit enthusiasm and prevent success.
Nowadays, numerous celebrities are working hard to show young people that they can achieve everything they dream of, regardless of their origin and financial status.
When she was growing up in inner-city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids, often encountering assumptions about what it meant to be a person of color.
“They’d never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she’s going to make it into New York City Ballet.”
Yet, she eventually had her dream come true and had an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart’s Ballet Lausanne and LINES.
She retired in 2008, after 13 years of performing, but she has another dream to pursue now- to change the stereotypes and misconceptions about women of color.
“I want to show it’s okay to embrace our softer side and let the world know we’re multidimensional.”
To inspire the children in the community where she spent her childhood, she launched the Swan Dreams Project in 2011, which involved posting photos of her in a tutu all over Rochester.
“I wanted to dispel myths about women of color. What better way to do that than as a ballerina?”
Her original intention was to rent public ad spaces to showcase the images, but the cost of taking out ads around the city forced Ash to share them online.
“I remember growing up and in the bodega you’d see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes. I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light.
I thought I’m so tired of seeing this image—that this is the only way we are being displayed. I started to lament. Why did I give up my career so soon? What was all that work for?”
She also writes on her site:
“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 socio-economic background.”
She is aware of the power of imagery and remembers the time when she was a student at the School of American Ballet and saw a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long:
“That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I’d see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too.”
She made the photos available through an online store, and also distributed prints to school and students.
All money from sales is directly sent to organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities.
When she posted the images on Facebook, people became eager to learn more about The Swan Dreams Project, and she was amazed by the reactions of complete strangers:
“I was expecting young girls to like the images or say they were powerful for them. But it was adult women [emailing me], saying the image brought them to tears, wishing they would never have given up their dreams. What not having representation meant to them. I found it very powerful.”
Ash has two children and lives in San Jose, CA. To spread her message of inclusivity, Ash has taught free dance classes to the children at her daughter’s public school, as well as for Girls Inc., a nonprofit that mentors girls ages 6 to 18.
“I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, ‘Are you the ballet teacher?’ She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room. You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence.”