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Carmel ballerina studying at London's Royal Ballet School

Sasha Manuel started at age 4. Just 10 years later, she moved overseas to study with some of the best of the best, changing the narrative of brown girls in ballet.

CARMEL, Ind. — When Wilmara Manuel enrolled her daughter in ballet at age 4, she had no idea the international journey that would follow.

In just 10 years, her little girl would move overseas for five years of study with the Royal Ballet School in London.

"I say it's like getting into every single Ivy League at the same time, it is a one-in-a-million shot," Wilmara said.

The academic and ballet curriculum is competitive and rigorous, but the honor of training, learning, and performing with the best was an opportunity Sasha Manuel couldn't pass up.

"I feel like I've worked very hard to get here," Sasha said via Zoom as she checked in with her mom and Alyona Yakovleva, her former teacher at the Indiana Ballet Conservatory in Carmel.

Sasha, whose birth name is Alexandra, got her nickname from her Russian instructors at IBC. They told her "Sasha" is the nickname for "Alexandra" in Russian, and it stuck.

"It's easy to assume sometimes that it was all smooth sailing, or that some things come naturally," Sasha said. "Coming to the Royal Ballet School, you see a lot of different types of dancers, and obviously, everybody's working hard, but some people have a natural ability to do things more than you, and I think some people assumed that about me. But I definitely had a lot of work to do."

Sasha started classes at IBC when she was 8, after her family moved to Carmel, Indiana, from Maryland.

Credit: Manuel family
Sasha Manuel at age 8

During her years at IBC, Sasha performed in the studio's productions, including the Nutcracker, and participated in Youth America Grand Prix competitions. She also attended master classes in Indianapolis and across the country.

Wilmara said by age 11, Sasha had decided she really wanted to seriously pursue ballet, and from then on, the family was along for the ride.

"I learned to sew pointe shoes. I learned to sew costumes...and ballet was our second home," Wilmara said.

Six years ago, nonprofit Brown Girls Do Ballet named Sasha as "One to Watch," helping change the narrative of brown girls in ballet.

But ultimately, it was during a master class in California, that the artistic director offered Sasha a short-term scholarship for a week in London. After that, she received an invitation to the final audition for the Royal Ballet School.

"I don't think I even knew what that really meant," Wilmara said.

But Sasha did, and when she was offered a spot, she was all in.

"I definitely feel like getting to the Royal Ballet School was a milestone that I achieved," Sasha said. "I think definitely getting to a school of this caliber has been reassuring in the sense that I'm on the right path."

Next, she'll need to decide on what ballet company to join. That decision will be announced this spring when Manuel graduates.

"I'm glad I was courageous enough to let her go because it took a lot," Wilmara said. "A lot of times, it's not the talent. It's everything — it's the finances, your training. Were you lucky enough to have teachers from day one? Did you get the right support? Were you at the right place at the right time?"

Wilmara said their family was blessed to have people who saw Sasha's talents early on and were willing to take a chance on her, especially as a Black ballerina.

"I had my concerns and nervousness about whether she could really make it that far," Wilmara said. "I think we were lucky that this is happening now for her because there's been sort of a reckoning in the ballet world that we've got to be open...talent is not defined by skin color."

Those at IBC remember Sasha as stubbornly determined with an essential blend of gift and grit.

"It's a really neat combination to be in the level where she is right now. It's lots of talent and lots of discipline altogether," Yakovleva said.

Sasha's parents are both educators, and the Royal Ballet School's academic curriculum was key to their decision to allow Sasha to continue her studies overseas.

Credit: Manuel family
Sasha Manuel is the middle of three daughters. She made the decision to leave her family at 14 years old to study ballet in London for five years.

Sasha's daily schedule includes six hours in dance class and then school work. She said showing up every day is the hardest part.

"You have long days, and your day doesn't finish once you've left the studio," she said. "There's maybe like 20 other exercises that you have to do, and then you have to stretch, and take care of your feet, or do homework, and then sew a pair of shoes, and then wake up again and do it all over again."

She works in thousands of hours of practice, for minutes on stage. It's where all agree, Sasha shines.

"She would be so serious in the studio but set foot on stage and it was like something turned on," Wilmara said.

When she's dancing, Sasha wants the audience to see her passion for dance.

"(I hope they see) somebody who really enjoys what they're doing and cares a lot about what they're doing...because it takes a lot of time and hard work to just even get on a stage," Sasha said. "Hopefully they can appreciate the effort I've put into what I'm doing."

Sasha, now 19, aims to inspire young dancers.

"Keep going and keep working hard. And if it feels like no one has recognized it yet, somebody will and somebody will see that you've shown up every day," Sasha said. "And even if you don't see somebody that looks like you in the studio or on stage, rather than letting it keep you down, use it as motivation to be the first person like you and be a role model for other people because other people will need it."

Despite Sasha's impressive resume and accomplishments so far, she insists there is much work ahead.

"I feel like I've got a way to go, but I'm happy with where I am," Sasha said. "I definitely couldn't have...made it here without my family, my mom or my IBC teachers, or my teachers here."

Follow Sasha's journey on Instagram by clicking here.

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