Professional dancer Aesha Ash knows what it is like to feel that you don’t quite fit in. Ash, who’s 41, grew up in the city of Rochester, New York, and starting in first grade took buses to schools in the suburbs as part of a program to encourage diversity.
“The suburban kids didn’t know how to relate to us,” Ash said. “They would ask questions about crime in my neighborhood and say mean things because they were ignorant.”
Sometimes she would get angry, and other times she felt sad and weak. After a while she learned that “being weak in a moment doesn’t make you a weakling,” she said. She became proud of who she was and where she was from.
She also faced difficulties in her favorite after-school activity: dance.
Starting at age 5, Ash studied tap, jazz and ballet. She thought she wanted to be a dancer on Broadway. At age 10, she started studying ballet more seriously, and the ballet school told her she had to choose one kind of dance.
“The other forms of dance were easier for me,” Ash said, but she wanted a challenge.
She talked to her mom, who told her that a career in ballet would be even more difficult for her because few ballet dancers were black. And those words helped Ash decide. She would prove to herself and to everyone that she could become a ballerina.
Ash entered the School of American Ballet in New York City and worked hard toward her dream. Any time she felt bullied, she tried to stand up for herself and she became more determined to succeed.
At 18, her dream came true when she joined the New York City Ballet, where she danced many solos and principal, or lead, roles. Then she moved to Europe to be a soloist with a dance company in Switzerland before returning to work in the United States.
In 2011, Ash started the Swan Dreams Project, a charity that uses dance and the arts to teach kids that where they live, how much money they have, what their race is or anyone else’s ideas about them cannot limit their dreams.
“You will face nos in life, but you need determination, focus and passion,” she said. “Know that nothing will take your dreams from you. Give it your all, and you will reach your goal.”
In 2016, the virtual National Women’s History Museum honored Ash for not only being one of the first African American professional ballet dancers, but also for her work through the Swan Dreams Project, which runs a summer camp in Rochester and an after-school program in San Jose, California.
And even though Ash has won awards and acclaim, she said the thing she treasures most is making her family proud because she reached her dream.
“All of the hard work and sacrifice paid off,” she said. “When you have a dream, believe it with all of your heart.”