Interview with Aesha Ash
by Anupama Shivakumar
Why did you start doing ballet?
I started dancing at age 5 but I began with other types of dance—jazz, tap, lyrical modern... those styles of dance started coming easy to me and I started getting bored with that—all the performances, all the pieces. At one point a guest teacher came to the studio and saw me dance, and she told my mother I should consider ballet. I started ballet at a new studio, but it wasn’t, you know, love at first class or anything. I wasn’t used to it but I wanted a challenge, so I started to take ballet more seriously. It was very difficult, but the challenge was interesting. My mother began looking into summer classes because many dancers would take them, and at that point she was told that this would be difficult for a woman of color. That’s when I knew that I had to do this, that I had to show that women of color are more than a stereotype. That’s when I became very serious about pursuing ballet.
How long does it take to learn the choreography?
It really depends. In the NYC ballet, for example, sometimes you’ll have to learn a dance in half an hour, if someone is injured or unable to dance. But other times a piece takes weeks to learn and practice.
What’s your favorite ballet?
I get this question a lot—but I don’t have one. It might be because of my background in other types of dance, but I love everything from classical, traditional dances like “Swan Lake” to neo-classical dances such as “Red Angels.” I like being able to jump from one genre to the next, which I was able to do in the New York City Ballet.
Why do you think some people would assume that ballet is easy?
I think it’s because we are taught to make ballet look graceful, elegant—as if it’s done with ease. We are taught not to show our exhaustion on stage.
How are you going to achieve your goal of defeating the stereotype of what capabilities women of color “should” have?
I think it’s just about continuing to get my message out there—if I touch one person, that person will touch the next, and then that person will touch another. So even though I’m not dancing right now, there’s still something I can do to achieve that goal. It’s important that people see what women of color can do, and that girls and women of color see that they have another, softer, side of themselves, one that’s not promoted by stereotypes.
How do you feel as if you’re changing people’s perceptions through The Swan Dreams Project?
Through the images, I think people are able to see women of color in a way they usually don’t. They see the juxtaposition of me and the environment in which I grew up—people in those environments can show the softer side of themselves and it doesn’t make them weak. It actually takes great strength, and that’s the side society and young women and girls need to see.
What does Black History Month mean to you and how are you including yourself in it?
I’m grateful to have a month to celebrate our accomplishments and be able to dig back and appreciate the work of people of color. My work only continues the incredible work of people of color and all the sacrifices they’ve made.
Do you have a message for women of color?
Beauty and grace are not defined by status nor race. Women of color are so much more than a stereotype.
What is the best thing about working on your project, and when do you feel most successful?
The most gratification comes from when I go home, when I’m in environments like the inner city, and people thank me for what I’m doing and for giving them hope. It feels good to make young women and men proud of who they are and where they come from—to remind them to hold their heads high and be proud. It’s especially rewarding to see mothers and fathers come up and say “thank you for showing my child what she can do...” It feels good to see all my work in this project come to fruition.
Using three words. Describe your project.
Not a stereotype
Is there anyone that inspires you? If so, who and why?
My mother is such a strong woman who has made a lot of sacrifices for my family and for me to follow my career. She gave me the fighter I have inside of me.
What do you wish you could see more of in the ballet industry?
We’re working on getting more diversity on stage but I’d love to see more diversity behind the scenes as well. I’d love to see black and brown people making decisions, as teachers, directors and people sitting on the board...
What are your thoughts on the current popular styles of dancing?
Look, my project is putting out a very different style of message. I have a lot of respect for the physicality involved, but the problem is that our young girls are often pushed in that direction because that’s the image that keeps getting pushed out there. I don’t want to pin one style of dance against another, but it’s time to show what we can do.
What do you do in your spare time?
Volunteering, cooking, teaching, and exploring new movement. I love discovering new recipes and trying them out, and especially since I’m married to an Italian from Italy, it’s as if food is second to religion. I still love dancing, but more than just dance itself, I am fascinated by movement and what the body is capable of. Latin styles of dance, Parkour, martial arts, yoga, Pilates, Gyrokinesis etc...I love it all!
Do you have any advice for people out there wanting to pursue their dream but stereotypes and circumstances are holding them back?
It’s going to be hard, but fight for it. Your voice matters, your dream matters—you have to go out there and fight. We cannot sit back in silence. It’s not an easy fight, especially when one stereotype is being
pushed. When I was in Switzerland, there was a Japanese dancer who didn’t speak to me at first, but when he finally did, he said “I was afraid to talk to you,” and when I asked him why, he said “because of the images I saw of American black women on television that were scary and intimidating.” My presence countered that image he saw on screen—changed his perspective.
Lastly, what are three things you can’t go without?
Bread, olive oil, and music. But of course, family is a given.
Conducted the interview
Wrote the questions
Produced by Ally Godsil