Ballerina Aesha Ash on Disney Dreamers Academy Students Seeking Out Mentors (Exclusive)

The 2023 Disney Dreamers Academy gave 100 high scholars students nationwide a life-changing and immersive career and leadership experience. Over a four-day period, the students participated in career sessions that taught valuable life tools, leadership skills, effective communication techniques, and networking strategies. Students also attended in-depth workshops within their specific dreams and disciplines offered in the fields of business, entertainment, and sciences, and even career opportunities within The Walt Disney Company. While there, celebrity mentors gave them words of wisdom on how to keep their inner magic shining as they remain steadfast in their pursuits. 

There have been impressive strides made by The Walt Disney Company to diversify its resorts, attractions, theme parks, and programs. DDA was birthed out of such an initiative so that the students, more than half of them students of color, have equal opportunities. Though many of the students are excelling academically and through various social projects, they continue to face challenges in spaces where they are the only one who looks like them.

Ballerina Aesha Ash is familiar with that journey. In 2020, she made history as the first Black female member of the permanent faculty in the School of American Ballet's 86-year history. spoke to her about her career and how it can serve as a guide to the Dreamers. She stressed the importance of mentorship for youngsters of color in any field.

PC: So first, congratulations on all of your success. There are many barriers in classical ballet in terms of discussing body type with women of color, and obviously, also the potential for parents to enroll students at a young age because of the strenuous things that ballet does to your body. What initiatives does the School of American Ballet offer for dancers of color to combat this?

AA: Yeah, that's a great question. So before starting as the Associate Chair of the Faculty of the School of American Ballet, I was part of something that we started, which is called the Alumni Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee. And it was all of the alumni of color that have gone through the School of American Ballet to come back to the school. And we basically talked about our experience, and how hard it was being a minority there, and the challenges that we faced prior to even joining the school, and so the School of American Ballet is trying to tackle those things and reach out instead of waiting for the community to come to us. We have things where we go out into the community. We also have those alumni who keep us on a web, letting us know what's happening in the community, and how we can reach out and help more. So that's one way. 

I think another way that we spoke as the alumni, we were saying that we can only have our dancers pull dancers of color into the school. We need to see dancers of color. We need to see our faces in leadership. And so here I stand. And so having the associate chair of faculty with the school, someone who is not only an alum of this school was the alum of the New York City Ballet, to have them in a leadership position to have them in the front of the classroom, that was something that didn't exist when I was there. I was the only one in the school, the only female of color at the School of American Ballet, during my full year when I was there. And it was a challenge. It was a challenge to look around the room and not see anyone who looks like you.

So that already kind of starts you at this sort of defeatist, imposter syndrome kind of coming up in. And so I think that all of those small steps, which seems small, are huge because we know that image is everything. We know that if what, for me, what I always say is what often speaks more powerful is what we don't see. It's not always just what we do. So now that I am in that space, I'm hoping that that speaks volumes not only to the community that we have within SAB, but outside.

We have lots of scholarships that we offer kids and stipends when it comes to shoes, tights, leotards, because all of that stuff is quite expensive. We have scholarships as far as the School of American Ballet has dormitories for students who don't live in the city. So we provide scholarships to those students who are within this, who are not within the city and need to live in our dormitories. Even scholarships for the training itself. We have a cafeteria downstairs, so they get a stipend and scholarship for that as well. So there's a lot of ways in which the school is trying to pile their resources together, resources, financially, and resources as far as their alum to sort of combat.

PC: And you mentioned that you were the only one who looked like when you did your first full year at the School of American Ballet. You've continued to make strides as the first, and people of color were typically the first in a lot of the fields that we're in. So obviously, there are 100 dreamers here. What is your advice to those who may be the first in their respective fields and seeking out mentors to assist them along the way and potentially having to deal interact with mentors and seek out mentors who do not look like them as well?

AA: Oh, well, first and foremost is find that mentor. I'm passionate about mentorship because I didn't have it. And I, as I've gone throughout my career and I've read autobiographies and listened to these interviews, at the core of many individual success was that mentor. And so for me, it was my mother, so that was my mentor. But I do think that it's imperative to have somebody in that field who understands that field and knows how to navigate it and has been there and done that. Someone who is not of their ethnicity, there are some challenges, there are some barriers there because then you have that added step of getting them to understand what it's like to be the only one. Because we do have added challenges.

And I think that it's important that they understand that. I think it's, for me personally, I would seek out a mentor who was of my ethnicity because it's a journey that not a lot of people understand. And when you've lived that experience, there is this knowledge that comes with that. So that's something that's really important to me. This doesn't mean that I still don't have other individuals who are not my ethnicity that I speak to and get advice from because they still have some knowledge of the field. They still have lots of good information that they can provide to you. But I would have an additional mentor that is somebody that I could relate to on that more personal level.