Magazine

Why I Dance: Allison DeBona

First soloist with Ballet West

DeBona didn't perform professionally until she was 24. Photo by Matthew Karas.

There is one thing you should know about me: I am the only person who can tell me what I can and cannot do. I have not followed the conventional path to becoming a ballerina. I quit dancing between the 8th and 11th grades because I wanted to be “normal.” It was 1997 and I was supposed to go to my first summer intensive, but I told my mom I’d rather be home for when my little sister was born. So I was a cheerleader, on the drill team and went to football games on Friday nights instead of ballet rehearsal. Then after I returned to ballet, I went to college instead of auditioning right out of high school. Yes, I did all of those things that young ballerinas are told not to do. To the shock of many, perhaps, I auditioned for ballet companies at 23, got my job at Ballet West and opened my first professional production the night of my 24th birthday. I am now 31 years old and a first soloist with Ballet West.


That’s not to say it was easy. Ballet technique requires dedication. It pushes our bodies physically and is the force behind starting every day at the barre. Technique is part of what binds us ballet dancers together. After all, it is what makes ballet an elite art form.


But despite my love of this challenge, it is not the reason why I returned to the barre. Rather, it has to do with what I learned at 6 years old: In class, my teacher asked us to pretend to walk across a field, pick a flower, smell it and place it in a basket in our arms. Even at a young age, I understood that this was more than a task. She was asking us to tell a story without words. It was the moment that I fell I love with dance, with being an artist.


I love coming to work knowing that I can help transform the stage into a place of magic and help the audience forget about their worries for a few hours. I am able to tell the stories of my triumphs and heartbreaks without saying a word, and let someone in the audience know that they are not alone. I may have had to work triple time to catch up to my peers technically, but it never held me back from trying. When you are given the gift to communicate through movement, it is meant to be shared. Dance was always much more than pirouettes and extensions, more than steps. I dance because it truly is the only universal language.

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"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

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In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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