It’s no secret that ballet has a diversity problem; the rise of the select group of black dancers who’ve achieved stardom, such as Misty Copeland, Eric Underwood, and Michaela DePrince, has called attention to that stark contrast. But the lack of suitable pointe shoes for dancers of color has as well.
These ballerinas have long resorted to darkening their own footwear, which is typically sold in pink shades most suited for white dancers. (Pointe shoes differ from regular ballet shoes because they include a block in front to allow ballerinas to dance “on point,” or on their tiptoes.) As makeup and lingerie brands have gradually broadened the meaning of “nude,” the lack of brown pointe shoes has signaled that, in the classical ballet world, flesh-colored still equals white European.
That’s no coincidence. Discussing George Balanchine, known as the “father of American ballet,” Misty Copeland told British newspaper the Telegraph in 2015 how the choreographer “created this image of what a ballerina should be: skin the color of a peeled apple, with a prepubescent body … So when people think of ballet, that’s what they expect to see, and when they see something different, it’s ‘wrong.’”
But the concepts of “right” and “wrong” in ballet may be changing. Dancers of color now have the chance to purchase footwear that come in shades of brown, thanks to a collaboration between the British dance company Ballet Black and the shoe manufacturer Freed of London. They no longer have to use makeup to darken the shoes, a time-consuming and costly process known as “pancaking.”
Darker shoes represent inclusion in classical ballet
Pointe shoes are typically pink to match the pink tights customary in ballet productions. But pink tights, of course, flatter pale skin tones. Many dancers who have darker skin prefer darker tights and shoes because they create cleaner lines on the leg and foot.
As Precious Adams of the English National Ballet told London’s Evening Standard in September, “In ballet, people have very strong ideas about tradition. They think me wearing brown tights in a tutu is somehow ‘incorrect.’ But I want to look my best onstage. I’m not colorblind, and I think it ruins the line of my body.”
The idea that pink tights and pointe shoes are “correct” while brown tights and shoes are a misstep also sends the message that ballet is not an art form meant for people of color. In fact, dancers Cira Robinson and Marie Astrid Mence of Ballet Black recently told BBC News that they grew accustomed to feeling excluded in the ballet world.
“Pancaking your shoe is kind of a tradition,” Robinson said. “It’s a ritual, but, again, it’s a tedious ritual. It’s a messy ritual.”
She never imagined she’d have a shoe that she could dance in without first engaging in that messy process, Robinson said.
And Mence discussed how the dearth of brown shoes and brown dancers alike reinforced the message that ballet was not a realm in which she belonged.
“I couldn’t see any, like, black ballet dancers, female or male,” she told the BBC. “And, now, being the one to wear bronze [pointe shoes], it’s extraordinary. It’s fantastic, and I hope I will inspire young ballet dancers and make them want to start ballet.”
Freed is just one brand that’s tried to make ballet more inclusive
The collaboration between Ballet Black and Freed of London isn’t the first time a business has tried to meet the sartorial needs of dancers of color. After performers in the Dance Theater of Harlem began wearing brown pointe shoes and tights in the 1970s, Capezio briefly supplied the ballet company with brown shoes.
Just last year, the US brand Gaynor Minden announced that it would offer pointe shoes, by special order, in “cappuccino” and “espresso” hues. But because those shoes are made of elastomeric plastic rather than the traditional paper-and-glue combo, not all ballerinas wear Gaynor Minden. Similarly, some dancers say they don’t wear Freed’s pointe shoes because the style isn’t right for them. This highlights the need for more manufacturers of ballet goods to create wares in a wide variety of styles and colors.
Concerns about ballet apparel go beyond shoes, though, to hosiery and more. And in July, the London-based startup Heist, a favorite of Meghan Markle, introduced a seven-shade palette to provide tights for a range of skin tones. Although Heist isn’t specifically a ballet outfitter, it has featured dancers in its ads.
Ten years ago, Shades of Dance launched a tights collection in a range of colors, including white, pink, several browns, and black. Its website states: “Our goal is to allow every dancer to see a true image of themselves when they look in the mirror.”
Ultimately, this is the point of having ballet shoes and hosiery in an array of colors — the opportunity for all dancers to feel like they matter. Making apparel available to dancers of color is a good first step that will hopefully pave the way for greater diversity and acceptance in the industry.
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