When Aesha Ash retired in 2008 emerging as the only African-American ballerina at the New York City Ballet, she was certain that she had to take the dance form to places it wouldn’t ordinarily be accessed.
Ash who was born on December 30, 1977 in Rochester, New York began taking jazz classes even before falling for ballet.
At the School of American Ballet which she entered at 13 on a scholarship, she won the Mae L. Wien Award for Outstanding Promise.
Ash met hardships along the way. She often felt isolated, and some evenings—far away from family and friends—she cried in her bed.
The distance from Rochester and her family made it hard. The color of her skin did not make it any easier. She was stung when, during a rehearsal of Swan Lake, a dance supervisor was irate that some of the white dancers had gotten tans. Appearing to prefer alabaster dancers, the woman said she didn’t “want to see one tan body on stage.” Ash wondered where she fit in.
And there was the makeup artist who seemed befuddled by what to do with Ash’s skin and then there was the occasion when someone in the audience critiqued the performance by saying it was “distracting” to have a black dancer on stage.
At age 18, she joined the corps de ballet at New York City Ballet. She 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. “You just have this thought, in the back of your mind all the time, that I was the token,” she said.
In 2003, she moved to Switzerland to perform as a soloist in the Béjart Ballet.
Upon her return in 2005 to the United States, she joined the Alonzo King LINES Ballet, a contemporary ballet company in San Francisco.
In retirement, she set up the Swan Dreams Project in 2011 which encouraged African-American girls to become ballet dancers visiting them in impoverished inner cities. Her great wish is to change stereotypes and misconceptions about black women.
Ash mentions black dancer Andrea Long at the School of American Ballet as one who whet her appetite for the ballet even as a young girl with her exploits.
In 2001, Ash appeared in Richard Blanshard’s documentary Living a Ballet Dream. She also served as Zoe Saldana’s dance double during more complex sequences in the 2000 film Center Stage.
In 2016, she received an award from the National Women’s History Museum for her contribution to the arts. Ash was also featured in the 2016 book The Ballerina’s Little Black Book.
Ash lives in San Jose, California with her husband and their two children. She teaches at various SAB auditions as well.