I was scrolling through my newsfeed the other day when an image came into view that stopped me in my tracks. In it, a woman dressed in a black tutu, tights, and pointe shoes was showing two young African-American girls how to point their toes like a ballerina. The sight of their interaction was touching; but what struck me most about the photo was the stark contrast of their surroundings. All three were standing on a sidewalk, alongside a chainlink fence. Behind them was a rundown, abandoned store, followed by rows of homes in what appeared to be an low-income neighborhood.
For dancer and self-proclaimed “social provocateur” Aesha Ash, that attention-grabbing contrast is exactly the point. Ash is the former ballerina and founder behind The Swan Dreams Project, a foundation that aims to change how young black girls see themselves. Especially young black girls in economically depressed areas.
“Through the use of imagery and my career as a ballet dancer,” Ash writes on her website, “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.”
After retiring from ballet and becoming a new mother, Ash doubled down on her mission to change the stereotypes that exist for young girls by turning to photography.
“I recalled an image that hung in the School of American Ballet dormitory of a young black ballerina, Andrea Long-Naidu,” Ash tells Babble. “I remembered how this image motivated me on days when I just felt I couldn’t go on. I thought about how hard it must have been to be the only one of color in class every day and that pushed me to keep going. I thought how one image could affect me so much and realized how many negative images surround us each and every day. We internalize them without even realizing it.”
After that inspiration, Ash reached out to a photographer in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and together they quickly got to work.
“I shared with him my idea of wanting to capture images that would evoke thought and conversation,” says Ash. “Images that would send a message that exhibiting the qualities of a ballerina is not based upon race or your socio-economic background.”
She later had more photos taken in Hayward, CA by photographer Renee Scott.
“We too can be seen as ethereal and angelic,” Ash tells Babble. “I wanted not only my daughter and community to see that, but the world. It was equally as important for those in the community to know that I came from there. That was my environment and where I grew up. This blew the minds of many [people that] I met. Not only had they never met a ballerina before, [but] I was black and from their neighborhood. Many walked away with their heads held higher, feeling a sense of pride knowing I was one of their own.”
Ash has been working on the community project since 2011 and says she’s experienced a positive reception from both community members and the public online. Many women, especially older women, have reached out to her to share their own “Swan Dreams” that they were never able to pursue.
“It saddened me to know just how many [women] left their dream behind because of feeling different, or being made to feel different,” she says.
It’s perhaps this most of all that fuels her desire to continue to inspire kids to never abandon their dreams, or limit their own potential.
“When I have done outreach, the children have been so happy to see me,” she says. “What stuck out was each time they just wanted to hug me and be near me. It wasn’t about the dancing, but what I represented: A princess who looked like them. One little girl just stared at me, when told I would be her ballet teacher for the day, as if I was a unicorn. Just my presence alone has touched these kids in some way. This is why I feel the images are such an important part of the project.”
As a mother of two and as a woman, Aesha Ash’s work is so deeply moving and inspiring to me. But I’m not the only one whose heart she’s touching. I hope she inspires more little girls to be fierce and strong enough to follow their dreams, no matter how big or wild.