For as long as ballet has existed, it has been an art form that prizes uniformity. For just as long, the tights and pointe shoes that have given ballet dancers that uniformity — to achieve the seamless line from the top of the leg to the tip of the toe — have remained a pale hue called "European pink."
It's a shade that's left out dancers with darker skin tones. To blend in, ballet dancers of color have long had to take extra, expensive and painstaking steps.
Cira Robinson, a ballet dancer with the company Ballet Black, has been painting her shoes to match her skin for the better part of her career. "In order to get the 'line' that ballet required, as far as the brown tights and brown shoes to match my upper brown body, it was difficult because people sold nude but it wasn't necessarily my nude," she tells NPR's Scott Simon.
Only recently, some shoe companies have grown more inclusive. In 2016, U.S. manufacturer Gaynor Minden introduced three new colors for darker skin tones. Last month, Freed of London, one of the largest suppliers of dance shoes, followed suit. In addition to its "ballet pink" shade, Freed now sells "ballet brown" and "ballet bronze" — a welcome development for professional and student dancers in an industry that's struggled to diversify.
For Robinson, 32, it's progress that couldn't have come sooner. Robinson says it wasn't until she was 15 — seven years into starting ballet — during a summer program with the Dance Theater of Harlem that she was required to wear flesh-toned tights. "That, to me, was the first time that I realized that the tights that I was wearing were intended to match my complexion," she says. "It was the very first realization of the racial aspect of ballet for me."
So she scrambled, experimented with dying her tights, and eventually found brown tights and spray paint ("a pain" that "made the shoes crunchy," she says) in a Cincinnati theatrical shop.
When Robinson officially joined the Dance Theater three years later, she traded in the spray paint for foundation and began to pick up techniques from her peers of color, many of whom had been "pancaking" their shoes for years — as the practice of sponging makeup onto one's shoes is known in the ballet world. "It's tedious. It's a bit messy because it is brown foundation. It gets everywhere," Robinson says.
And it's time consuming. "I would apply makeup to my pointe shoes and spray it down, which would be about a two- to six-hour process," says Lenai Wilkerson, a ballet dancer with the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The staple pink ballet shoes are also a reminder of ballet's lack of diversity, according to Robinson. "Since the beginning, [ballet] has been white," Robinson says.
As The New York Times reports, pointe shoes were invented around 1820, according to dance historian Anna Meadmore, and "were originally white to help dancers appear ghostly — the romantic ideal in the early 1800s was for women to be ethereal — but pink came to dominate as a way to approximate European dancers' flesh." The Times adds, "Shoes should blend in with the leg, Ms. Meadmore said, and not 'break the line.' "
Robinson appreciates the arrival of new shades suited for women of color. "This moment makes me feel extremely proud," she says. "It's just one less job that we have to do as far as our shoes."
To Marie Astrid Mence, who's also with Ballet Black, the development is important for the ballet's future dancers who will get to grow up with colors that fit their complexion. "For me, it's a big change," she says. "But I think for the next generation of young dancers, it's incredible because they don't have to do what we did years ago. So I'm really happy and excited for that."
NPR's Sophia Boyd and Barrie Hardymon produced the audio version of this story. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.
(SOUNDBITE OF ACADEMY OF ST. MARTIN IN THE FIELDS PERFORMANCE OF FAURE'S "PELLEAS ET MELISANDE, OP. 80 - III. SICILIENNE")
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ballet is an art that prizes uniformity and precision in movement, technique and the human form. Part of what creates that aesthetic on ballerinas are the tights and pointe shoes that seem to form a continuous line from the top of the leg to the tip of the toe.
For more than 200 years, those tights and shoes have been a pale hue called European pink. It's a shade that left out dancers with darker skin tones. But some shoe companies have begun to be more inclusive.
Freed of London, one of the largest suppliers of dance shoes, will offer shades beyond the one they call ballet pink - ballet brown and ballet bronze. It's a welcome development for professional and student dancers in an industry that has struggled to diversify.
Here's Cira Robinson and Marie Astrid Mence with the company Ballet Black, Lenai Wilkerson at the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, and Olivia Boisson with the New York City Ballet.
CIRA ROBINSON: Ballet is an art form that's been around for hundreds of years. And since the beginning, it's been white.
MARIE ASTRID MENCE: So my basic ballet shoes were really pink. And they were the most cheapest ones. I didn't really like wearing that because it was not good on my skin, actually.
LENAI WILKERSON: I had to get my first pair of flesh-toned tights when I danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem. That, to me, was the first time that I realized that the tights that I was wearing were intended to match my complexion. So it was the very first realization of the racial aspect of ballet for me.
OLIVIA BOISSON: For my pointe shoes, my mom would just buy, like, liquid foundation. And she would sponge on makeup onto the pointe shoe to make it flesh-toned.
WILKERSON: I would apply makeup to my pointe shoes and spray it down, which would be about a two- to six-hour process.
ROBINSON: It's tedious. It's a bit messy because it is brown foundation. It gets everywhere. But also, pancaking the shoe to match your skin color is important because it does look odd if you wear a pink shoe with, you know, dark skin for a show.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN NATIONAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3")
ROBINSON: This moment makes me feel extremely proud. It's just one less job that we have to do as far as our shoes. It's being comfortable in our shoes as we would be in a pink shoe.
MENCE: For me, it's a big change. But I think for the next generation of young dancers, it's incredible because they don't have to do what we did years ago. So I'm really happy and excited for that.
SIMON: Ballet dancers Cira Robinson, Marie Astrid Mence, Lenai Wilkerson and Olivia Boisson.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN NATIONAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.