After hundreds of years of an extremely limited selection of colors that complemented only white dancers, the tide is turning. 

By Maressa Brown
November 06, 2018
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November 6, 2018

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The world of ballet is filled with tradition and history—including one practice that has existed for far too long. It's a method called pancaking, which dancers of color have had to do to paint their point shoes to match their skin tone. In a New York Times article, Cira Robinson explains that back in 2001, she was doing a summer program with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Her shoes had to be brown, not the traditional pink, but she couldn’t find any in stores, so she used spray paint. "It made them crunchy and just … ew," she said in a telephone interview. Later, she began using five tubes of cheap foundation a week, sponging it onto 12 to 15 pairs of shoes. It would take her 45 minutes to an hour to completely coat her shoes in the color. 

But finally, Robinson can throw in the towel on this time-consuming, costly practice, because, just last month, extremely popular ballet shoe supplier Freed of London started selling two point shoes specifically for dancers of color: one brown, the other bronze. The Times reports that American company Gaynor Minden has been producing ballet shoes like these for over a year, but Freed's move is seen as particularly significant.

Of course, this development also serves as an important reminder of the lack of diversity in ballet. Black dancers, especially women, are unfortunately still quite under-represented, even though schools that train dancers who end up in professional companies are increasingly aware of the need for bolstered diversity.

Part of the issue is, of course, the overly strict adherence to tradition, as Precious Adams, a first artist at English National Ballet, explained to the London’s Evening Standard newspaper in September: "In ballet, people have very strong ideas about tradition. They think me wearing brown tights in a tutu is somehow ‘incorrect.’”

But ballet wear is meant to blend in with the skin tone of the performer, so the fact that shoes and other garments have only been manufactured in colors that complement white skin tones has reflected an unnerving lack of acceptance. Thankfully, after 200 years, Freed's move proves that the tide is finally turning. 

As Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of the Dance Theater of Harlem, told the New York Times: “This isn’t about shoes, this is about who belongs in ballet and who doesn’t. It’s a signal that the world is open to you."

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