Ballet star Aesha Ash told the hundreds of students at Byron-Bergen Elementary that when she was growing up in Rochester, “there were no princesses or fairies that looked like me. There were no magical creatures, unicorns or swans that looked like me.” When she dreamed of being a ballerina, she was told that there were no black ballerinas, and that she would never succeed. She dreamed anyway, and she did succeed. She was accepted to the legendary School of American Ballet where she was chosen to join the New York City Ballet when she was 18—one of the first black dancers in the corps.
How did this world-famous dancer and winner of the National Women’s History Museum's 2016 Women Making History Award, come to be in Byron-Bergen? Fourth-grade teacher Alyson Tardy heard about Ash’s Swan Dreams Project, which was founded in 2011. This project uses powerful imagery to counter negative stereotypes of race and socio-economic background and inspire children to dream bigger. She thought that Ash’s message would be a great tie-in to the school’s character education program. She invited Ash and coordinated the special visit. Students surprised their visitor with a hallway lined with artwork featuring swans of many shapes and colors.
“The art is so beautiful,” said Ash. “I’m honored that the kids welcomed me this way.”
At the crowded assembly, Ash shared her story with attentive students, beginning with her passion for dance and her determination to become a ballerina. She explained how she was part of Rochester’s Urban Suburban program, and constantly faced questions and misunderstanding from peers about her background and city neighborhood. Her family was not rich; she told the story of borrowing toe shoes for her first tryout. Even when Ash became a professional ballet dancer, she felt a sense of not belonging, of being different.
“All my life, I’ve fought to change perceptions and dispel myths—for myself, my family and my Rochester community,” she said. “The more that people told me that I couldn’t do something, the more I wanted to do it.”
Ash’s professional dance career lasted 13 years. It included eight years with the NYC Ballet along with performing in the Bejart Ballet in Switzerland and Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, and with many other companies as a freelance artist. She and her family currently live in California where she is working to make the Swan Dreams Project an afterschool program. She hopes to open a studio where she can teach ballet to children who are not able to afford lessons. The Swan Dreams Project video she shared with Byron-Bergen students can be found at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=7h58rXzsNhU