Ballet has always been known for its signature light pink shoes, worn by all dancers whenever they appear on stage. If you had to assign a color to the word “ballet”, it would probably be pink. The thing is, it’s not only light-skinned people who like to do ballet, even though that seemed to be the norm for a while. Now, people of all colors and races go en pointe. It appears, however, that the strict fashion that accompanies this dance form has not kept up with the times all that well.
Painting pink pointe shoes brown
Brazilian-born professional ballerina, Ingrid Silva, spoke to Today about how there’s been one chore she’s had to do every time before she could go on stage – she had to take her traditionally pink pointe shoes and paint them brown to match her skin, a technique also known as “pancaking”.
She spent the time doing it because she felt that the shoes formed part of her identity, and the light pink certainly didn’t match. “It’s part of who I am. It’s part of who I represent. And it’s the look of our company,” she said. Silva is part of the Dance Theatre of Harlem ballet company. She added that she wished the process had never been necessary, that if brands had done a little bit more research, they would have found that darker shoes are actually in demand. She would have loved to simply put on her pointe shoes without having to spend time dyeing them brown first.
Some manufacturers have caught up with the times
Despite the fact that brands manufacturing ballet shoes have been sorely lacking in the diversity department, American manufacturer Gaynor Minden has paved the way for change. They are one of the first companies who has started to produce shoes in shades of brown. Finally! Founder of the company, Eliza Minden, said that it is important that dancers of color see clothing and shoes that have been designed with them in mind – it makes them feel welcome and supported, and that’s the way it should be. Ballet is for everyone, after all.
Misty Copeland is eager for change
Misty Copeland, who is the first and only African-American female principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre, also weighed in on the situation, saying that the issue with the shoes is just one of many obstacles young dancers of color have to face when they want to give ballet a shot.
According to Copeland, since ballet’s creation, there have been many underlying and subliminal messages sent to people of color, making them feel like they didn’t fit into this style of dance, saying: “When you buy pointe shoes or ballet slippers, and the color is called European pink, I think that it says so much to young people – that you don’t fit in, you don’t belong, even if it’s not being said.”
Some ballet companies are more lenient than others
Anyone who’s ever done ballet knows that it has a very strict set of rules and that when it comes to the stage, uniformity is key. This is still the case with traditional companies like the American Ballet Theatre. Uniformity in the color of shoes is an important aspect of performance, and the primary color of the shoes they use is still pink.
Companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem allow dancers to wear shoes that match their skin tone, but this means that ballerinas at the company have had to dye their shoes since the 1970s. Now, with the creation of darker shoes, their days of “pancaking” are hopefully over forever. Founder and current artistic director of the company, Victoria Johnson, is hopeful that the new dark-colored shoes will help to attract more people of color to ballet, saying: “It’s kind of like a welcome mat. A tiny thing, but a huge thing for a young person to feel like, yes, I can be part of it, and they’re ready for me.”
Black women in ballet want others to join them
Copeland shares in Johnson’s hope that this new trend will help to attract many new dancers of color. Being one of the few prominent role models for women of color in ballet, Copeland is working tirelessly to get more people like her to take part in this style of dance. One of her endeavors that aimed to make more people aware of ballet was her partnership with Under Armour, where she helped to design a signature collection. She also went on to become the face of Estée Lauder.
Copeland wants to use the platforms at her disposal to reach the masses, to encourage black people to try this unique form of dance. “I’ve had these conversations with black people where they’re like, ‘(Ballet) is not what we do,’ and I’m like, ‘Have you ever seen a ballet?’ No.” Copeland wants to change this and she agrees that the new range of shoes is definitely a step in the right direction. It can help black people to feel like ballet can indeed be part of their culture if they want it to be, it is something they can be a part of if they want to, and it’s a unique opportunity for them to tell their stories.
As with most things in life, representation matters – even having something as small and simple as the right color shoe for your skin tone makes a huge difference. It’s about time ballet companies start to be more accommodating – every skin color out there is beautiful, and there should be attire to match and celebrate that. Hopefully, this is the start of big changes to come and we’ll soon see even more diversity on stage.