This past June, Aesha Ash took her place as the School of American Ballet’s Associate Chair of Faculty. After a lifetime of training at the school, dancing with the company, and educating up-and-coming students, she is bringing her expertise to this new role—taking care of dancers holistically.
Ash’s dance training began at five years old in her hometown of Rochester, NY at the Joyce Winters School of Dance, where she competed in jazz, tap and lyrical. Ballet was not a focus of hers until a guest teacher came to her studio and told her mother she thought Ash had promise as a classical dancer. Eventually, Ash transitioned to train exclusively at the Timothy Draper Dance Theatre (now Rochester City Ballet), where she loved the challenge of ballet. “The other styles came easier to me. I loved that ballet required more,” she says. When she was old enough to start auditioning for summer programs, Ash was warned about the challenges women of color face in the industry. “That’s when I knew I had to pursue this career,” she explains. “As an inner city kid who was bussed out to school, I faced racism and controversy in my life, and I wanted to challenge the issue head on. I wanted to dispel myths and stereotypes surrounding women and people of color, and I wanted to use ballet to do that.” She attended SAB’s program for three summers in a row before joining the school year-round for two years. Ash’s professional career began when she joined New York City Ballet as an apprentice then corps de ballet member in 1996, followed by Béjart Ballet Lausanne as a soloist, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company.
Despite her current high-power position in dance education, teaching was not originally part of Ash’s career plan. “I was very intimidated by it,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a bad teacher that dancers would be hard on.” She taught classes from time to time but always turned down anything consistent—that is, until she took a Pilates certification course that taught her lessons she wished she’d known as a dancer in training. “I suddenly knew how to help people and had a desire to pass on what I’d learned,” she says.
In 2016, SAB came calling to make Ash a guest faculty member, then later a visiting faculty chair, and finally the school’s first full-time African American female faculty member in September 2020. But it wasn’t until she stepped into her role as Associate Chair of Faculty this past June that she really saw things come full circle. “I went from being a scared student to someone at the front of the room trying to help students feel safe,” she says. Part of her new position includes working with the school’s health and wellness department to support students outside of the studio with lifestyle factors including nutrition, mental health, physical therapy, Pilates and academics. “I want dancers to step into their identities and develop skills that will benefit them in their lives, whether they dance professionally or not,” she says. “I want these students to understand what they are gaining from the school right away, rather than just in hindsight. That they become lovers of the art and want to stay connected and take part in some way on and off the stage.”
Here, Ash shares her go-to teaching tools for educating dancers:
Her go-to teaching warmup: “I try to get my muscles warm with things like prances and find my core by doing planks with some leg lifts. Then I explore ideas for class on my own body. Through that process, I discover things that aren’t clicking and find new patterns that might be better.”
Her daily breakfast: “I start my day with skyr [Icelandic-style strained yogurt], which is low in sugar and high in protein. It is very lightly sugared and tastes good with mixed nuts and dried fruit. I also have lots of water and am a big tea drinker.”
Her favorite non-dance activities: “I am a homebody and love spending time with my family on the sofa. Eating good big meals with my Italian husband is important to me. I also love to see art, beautiful architecture and shows. Dancers should take those moments to enjoy new experiences. Take in sunsets and eat delicious food.”
The books that have inspired her: “I’m a huge fan of Suki Schorer and own her book on the Balanchine technique. I’ve put a million sticky notes inside it, highlighting things I thought were important. I also love books on the basics of ballet technique, like Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans.”
Her guilty pleasure: “For me, it’s salt—especially crunchy popcorn. I like to make it in a pot with kernels, olive oil, and salt. You can also put truffle oil or nutritional yeast on it to make it cheesy. Once I get started it’s hard to stop!”