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How Former New York City Ballet Dancer Aesha Ash Is Encouraging a New Generation of Black Ballerinas

Having danced with New York City Ballet, Béjart Ballet and the Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Aesha Ash undoubtedly inspired more than a few future ballerinas during her 13-year professional career. But now that she's retired, she's found a way to reach even more young girls, particularly those who live in inner-city neighborhoods, after founding The Swan Dreams Project.


Creating the project in 2011, Ash recently told SELF that she originally intended to rent public ad spaces to showcase images of herself in her tutus in her hometown of Rochester, New York. While the cost of taking out ads around the city forced Ash to share her pictures in a different way, the reasoning behind her efforts has remained the same ever since.

"I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," Ash told Dance Magazine. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light." Through a mix of black and white and color photos, Ash has used free social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to do just that.

"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," Ash writes on her site.

To help further spread her message of inclusivity, Ash has taught free dance classes to the children at her daughter's public school, as well as for Girls Inc., a nonprofit group that serves to mentor girls ages 6 to 18. Additionally, all donations to The Swan Dreams Project and funds raised through the sale of Ash's pictures and t-shirts are donated to dance schools and organizations working to diversify the ballet world.

Ballet Training
Hortense Millet-Maurin (third from left) and her classmates perform August Bournonville's La Conservatoire. Svetlana Loboff, Courtesy POB.

As a little girl, Hortense Millet-Maurin fell in love with the wide spiral staircase that dominates the center of the Paris Opéra Ballet School. Today, as a focused 15-year-old POB student, she and her classmate Vincent Vivet navigate the school's spacious architecture on a daily basis. In a hallway strewn with foam rollers and tennis balls, their faces are laced with concentration as they prepare alongside their peers for afternoon ballet class. Color-coded uniforms reflect Vivet's and Millet-Maurin's third division; with only two advanced divisions remaining, they are increasingly close to realizing their professional aspirations: joining the Paris Opéra Ballet. Pointe spoke with these two young dancers to see what it's like studying inside the world's oldest ballet academy.

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Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

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Ballet Training
Emily Giacalone, modeled by Elizabeth Steele of The School at Steps.

If you're feeling wobbly in adagio or wish you could hold your piqué attitude a bit longer, there are ways to assess and improve your balance. Try these four exercises, recommended by Heather Southwick, Boston Ballet's director of physical therapy.

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Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

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