Ballet dancers of color have long painted, dyed or covered point shoes in makeup to match their skin. Could this small barrier to inclusion finally be disappearing?
For nearly her whole career, Cira Robinson has — like many ballet dancers of color — performed a ritual: Painting her point shoes to match her skin.
She did it first in 2001, when she was 15, at a summer program with Dance Theater of Harlem. The company said her shoes needed 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.
When she joined Dance Theater a few years later, she started using makeup instead. “I’d go to the cheapest stores and get foundation,” she said, the kind “you’d never put on your face as it’d break you out. Like, $2.95 cheap.”
She’d go through five tubes a week, sponging it onto 12 to 15 pairs of shoes — a process known in ballet circles as pancaking. It took 45 minutes to an hour to do a pair, she said, because she wanted to make sure the foundation got into every crevice and covered every bit of ribbon.
Did she find these steps annoying? “I didn’t know any different,” Ms. Robinson, 32, said.
But now, Ms. Robinson — a senior artist at Ballet Black, a British dance company — is no longer obliged to do so. In October, Freed of London, which supplies her shoes, started selling two point shoes specifically for dancers of color: One brown, the other bronze.
Freed is not the first firm to make point shoes for dancers of color — the American company Gaynor Minden has been producing some more than a year — but the new shoes from Freed, a large supplier in the ballet world, highlight one of the stranger rituals that dancers of color have to perform.
It’s also a reminder that black dancers — especially female ones — are still a rarity in ballet. They remain barely represented at the top of the field, despite some signs of change and an increased awareness of the need for diversity at the schools feeding professional companies.
Shoes aren’t the only costuming reminders of the lack of diversity in ballet. In September, Precious Adams, a first artist at English National Ballet raised the issue of pink tights. “In ballet people have very strong ideas about tradition,” she told London’s Evening Standard newspaper. “They think me wearing brown tights in a tutu is somehow ‘incorrect.’”