Performative Progress, Pressure, and Pointe Shoes: Diverse Shades in Dancewear
By Leah Ollie, Joffrey CE Intern
The journey of a pointe shoe is almost as tumultuous and significant as that of the dancer who wears it—for ballet dancers of color, even more so. In addition to microaggressions in the studio, lack of representation on the stage, and a history of discrimination in the field, finding and preparing dancewear that matches their skin tone can be an excessive struggle. Increasing pressure on manufacturers from high profile professionals as well as students across the globe have brought to light how many dancers have to pancake, dye, and modify their products just to achieve a clean line; artists such as Michaela DePrince, Misty Copeland, and the Joffrey’s own Princess Reid have spoken about the routines they have developed to match their pointe shoes, ribbons, tights, costumes, and ballet slippers to the color of their skin. In the event that a major dancewear reveals more diverse shades in shoes, the product often sells out or is retired without renewal. The dance world is expanding rapidly, and students and artists of color require the same widespread provisions that have remained standard for others.
To assess what products are available to white dancers in contrast to those made to accommodate dancers of color, it is necessary to evaluate the catalogs and virtual retails of some of the biggest dancewear providers today. Capezio, founded in 1887, has 18 different pointe shoe styles available on its website at this time, all of which are a pale satin pink color. Their soft ballet slippers tell a similar story, boasting two out of seven styles with a darker tan or brown shade available in canvas or leather (one of these is in fact the style that our own Joffrey Community Engagement program provides to dancers). Bloch, established in 1932, offers 50 different pointe shoe styles on their website, also solely available in a pale “ballet pink” shade.
Their tights only come in three colors, white, pink, and an ambiguous “tan” that would not suffice for darker-skinned dancers. However, for most other companies the category in which progress is more easily visible is tights production. Almost every type of Capezio’s tight styles (footed, transition, etc.) have at least three sheer shade options other than “ballet pink” or black and white. These examples are a noteworthy precedent to an examination of how such standards have evolved over time.
In 2017, Gaynor Minden became one of the first brands to offer diverse flesh-toned pointe shoes at no extra charge. Their “nude-for-all” shades came as a great relief to many dedicated dancers who were required to paint and pancake their shoes from the brand previously and opened doors to new revenue streams from dancers of color. Over the next couple of years, a rapid trend would begin in major dancewear retailers: brown was the new black. This theme accelerated at a much greater pace in the summer of 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement put the spotlight on representation and full acceptance of Black people in every possible space, including ballet. Bloch yielded to a petition created by two dancer activists with over 150,000 signatures to provide a deeper shade range in their satin pointe shoes (obviously not available for sale at this time), while in the same exact week, even bigger brands (Repetto, Capezio, Suffolk, Russian Pointe, Nikolay) made similar commitments after receiving social media pressure. The primary petition directed towards Bloch spread through the power of social media platforms and local studios and reached its numbers by organic distribution. The voice of the people called these companies to action, but such quick responses under the heat of controversy raise the question: Why didn’t they do this already? If orders, marketing campaigns, photoshoots with dancers of color, and product launch promises were able to be conjured up in 24 hours of social media hate, why have thirty-plus years persisted without a single brown shade in a company’s catalog?
It is important to note as well as question the motives, presentation, and sustainability of diversity efforts from major brands such as Bloch and Capezio, and credit the masses for creating change organically that led to such campaigns. Without community organizers and the millions of dancers of color and arts patrons around the globe pushing for change, it wouldn’t have been created at all. Without petitions, social media campaigns, and efforts from the people and for the people, the status quo would have persisted. We can see this in the ballet pink standard that has persisted for centuries, whether for aesthetic purposes or lack of regard towards consumers in markets previously untapped. The fact that many promises for flesh-toned rollouts have been directly sidelined by fun new leotards or costumes catalog refreshes is telling of how priorities have shifted once the “heat” of the general public has died down. Basic items in inclusive shades being removed from online retail websites, or no longer restocked, leads us back to the same initial problem we started with. But what can we do to break this cycle?
In short, we must focus on long-lasting equitable products and services to elevate dancers of color. The Joffrey’s own Princess Reid said it best: “Simply stop discontinuing the products and make them available to everyone.” Over the past year, the ballet world has been called to a higher standard and awareness of the communities it encompasses. There are specially created spaces for Black and brown dancers that should be a part of the ballet world as a whole, rather than existing as an exception within isolated small businesses and painstaking personal routines. "If you don't fit the one shade of shoe color, you automatically feel like you don't belong," proclaims Megan Watson, one of the creators of the Capezio pointe shoe petition. Watson voices an opinion boiling over for thousands, and it is becoming increasingly evident day by day that it is time to make room and make products for all. The Joffrey Ballet and the ballet world as a whole should be proud to prioritize this and stand behind our commitments to provide art and education for all.
Special thanks to Gregg Benkovich and Princess Reid for exclusive interviews and insights.
Other sources include:
- Dance shoes: Dancewear: Activewear. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2021, from Bloch.
- Lansky, C. (2020, June 13). Bloch, Russian Pointe and Capezio announce plans to release pointe shoes in diverse shades. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from Pointe Magazine.
- Women's ballet shoes By Capezio® (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2021, from Capezio.