Petitions urging ballet dancewear companies to expand pointe shoe shades for Black ballerinas and dancers of color result in promises of inclusion
For years, the default pointe shoe color for many ballet manufacturers has been a version of “European pink,” a ubiquitous shade of blush suited primarily for fair skin and light-colored tights. Faced with a lack of options for more diverse tones of satin, Black ballerinas and dancers of color have often dyed shoes with makeup or paint to match their skin, ensuring that the line of their leg is not broken by a shoe that starkly contrasts.
Strides have been made in recent years to correct the dearth of availability, with brands such as Gaynor Minden, So Danca and Freed (in partnership with London-based Ballet Black), releasing lines of inclusive options. But given the specificity required of a pointe shoe — the fit must be exact for safety and comfort — many dancers are still faced with the time-consuming and expensive task of altering their shoe color by hand.
This week, two viral campaigns on change.org yielded further victories in the push for inclusion within the ballet world. A surge of support for a two-year-old petition urging the popular dancewear manufacturer Bloch to expand its shades of pointe shoes nabbed 169,802 signatures before closing, and a campaign to get Capezio to do the same garnered 319,501 supporters. A third petition, started by Aerys Merrill, is also gaining traction as it demands all pointe shoe companies to provide diverse shades.
In the wake of public outcry, Bloch announced plans Tuesday to release darker shades of pointe shoes and dance socks in the fall, stating that previous plans were slowed due to the COVID-19 crisis. The company also noted it has expanded its offering of leotards, ballet flats and tights “over the years.”
Similarly, Capezio released a statement Wednesday revealing it will offer a wider range of tones for its two most popular pointe shoe styles in the fall.
“While we provide our soft ballet slippers, legwear and bodywear in a variety of shades and colors, our largest market in pointe shoes has traditionally been pink,” Michael A. Terlizzi, president and CEO of Capezio, wrote. “We recognize that custom made pointe shoes in any shade or color may not meet the needs of our customers.”
The separate online campaigns addressed to Bloch, Capezio and others call out the manufacturers for excluding dancers of color.
“Not only is there very little diversity in ballet itself, but what exacerbates the issue is that there is often zero diversity in shoe shades,” Megan Watson, who started the petition to Capezio, wrote on change.org. “If you don’t fit the one shade of shoe color, you automatically feel like you don’t belong.”
Dancer Briana Bell tweeted out the campaign June 7, drawing immediate support from the dance community. In a series of posts, Bell — who has been dancing since she was about three-years-old — explained that the lack of inclusive options makes it so that Black dancers “have to come out of their pockets to buy cheap foundations to ‘pancake’ their ballet shoes continuously to match their skin tone as opposed to their white counterparts for which the pink satin ballet shoes are made for.”
“I wish people understood that this issue is so much deeper than just shoes,” Bell told ALL ARTS. “It’s the small things that seem so very insignificant that pile up and weigh Black dancers (and all Black people) down. This is just another way to tell us we do not belong. We fight every day for equality in all aspects of our lives and all of these privileges seem insignificant in the eyes of white people but to us Black people and other POC, it’s a luxury we’ve yet to be afforded.”
Black dancers everywhere have to come out of their pockets to buy cheap foundations to “pancake” their ballet shoes continuously to match their skin tone as opposed to their white counterparts for which the pink satin ballet shoes are made for. Please sign this petition to help!! pic.twitter.com/epKemadekN
— BriBraat🦄 (@BriianaBell) June 7, 2020
As Bell notes in her Twitter thread, issues of inclusivity at the level of dancewear signals a larger issue of diversity within the ballet world. In an interview with the New York Times in 2018, Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theater of Harlem (where dancers wear tights and shoes matching their skin tones), stated: “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.”
Comments posted in response to Bell’s prompt to sign the petition range from empathetic replies to questions about why dancers must match their skin tone to their shoes in the first place and why shoes can’t just be purchased online from brands that provide greater options — which she answers by explaining that shoes elongate the line of leg and that fit must be evaluated at a highly individual level.
Bell also pointed out that dancers can go through several shoes in a short period of time, requiring the “pancaking” process to be repeated again and again. This aspect of longevity (not to mention the price of each pair, which can clock in around $100) only adds to the economy of labor underlying the shoe preparation process.
“Black ballerinas have constantly been pushed out of the typically and traditionally white ballet world because our bodies aren’t like theirs and this is just another way to make us feel unwanted,” Bell wrote. “This goes further than shoes. Prejudice and racism within [the] dance community are passive in my experience but very much there. It’s not much to ask for shoes to match our skin tones.”
Top Image: Sayaka Ichikawa, Marie Astrid Mence and Cira Robinson in pointe shoes created by Freed of London and Ballet Black. Photograph: Tyrone Singleton.