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Rochester native, former NYC ballerina spreads, message of breaking barriers, perseverance

(WHAM photo)

Bergen, N.Y. - A Rochester native is spreading a message of following your dreams, beating the odds and overcoming stereotypes in the ballet world.

Aesha Ash visited Bryon-Bergen Elementary School on Monday. She came to share how isolated she felt pursuing her dream as a ballerina, after someone told her she would never make it.

"I faced adversity," said Ash, who now lives in California with her husband and two children. "I had comments thrown my way that would set you back and remind you of this: That I am a black woman in an art form that may not have been set up for me. It took a lot of strength and perseverance to get past that."

And she did, joining the New York City ballet at the age of 18 and going on as a soloist in Europe before returning to the U.S. in 2005.

Ash is retired, now traveling the country and spreading the message of her "Swan Dreams Project," which efforts to dispel stereotypes and redefine what beauty is for woman - especially black woman. She's encouraging young girls, especially girls of color, to shine - even when there aren't many images that look like them.

She's being an example, a role model, to say, "You can do it, because I have."

“I want to give options especially to our young girls," Ash said. "Just because you see that, it doesn’t mean that’s your road, your path.”

The project uses images of Ash in different ballet stances around the City of Rochester, in a tutu and ballet point shoes.

“Imagery can be so powerful," she said.

Images helped a young Ash get through hard times of feeling alone as the only black ballerina in her ballet school. She said it was an image of Andrea Long, the only black dancer in the New York City Ballet, hanging in the school’s American Ballet dorms that kept her going.

“So looking at that image on days I just felt I could not go another step further," she said. "I just wanted to go home, to where I felt comfortable and felt accepted and loved. I also looked at that image and said, 'She was also alone, and she made it. If she could do it, I could do it. I can be strong.'”

Students at Bergen Elementary were moved by Ash's message.

“She’s from, like, a hard background but she never gives up." said fourth grader Katherine Rogoyski.

"I thought she was really caring to make other people, like, go for things," said Rayne Sheard, a fourth grader. "I wanted to do cheerleader, and I’m like, what if I don’t know how to do it? The words she just said, I’m like, wait, I can do this. I believe in myself."

"I thought that she was kind of incredible," said Grace Diquiattro. "Her first time doing those twirls in kneels, she was like, 'I don't know if I could do it,' and she tried and she succeeded."

Ash says the secret to success starts with one thing:

"A lot of times, it's just showing up that's enough," she says.

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