15 November 2018

Africa: Skin Appropriate Brown and Bronze Ballet Shoes for Dancers of Colour

Ethnic minority classical dancers had to use paint or foundation make-up to darken the standard-issue pink shoes that were the only option available to them. Now, for the first time on a large scale, ballet shoes will better match the skin colour of black and mixed dancers.

Companies, including mass producers Freed of London Pointe Shoe Makers, Britain's oldest manufacturer of pointe shoes, have finally taken a step towards recognition for minorities in the conservative world of classical dance.

Pointe shoes are a type of shoe worn by ballet dancers when performing, allowing them to stand on pointed toes. These shoes have always been made in a standard-issue pink or beige colour. Pointe shoes are a huge part of a ballerina's performance as they were conceived for dancers to appear weightless and evolved to assist dancers to dance on the tips of their toes for a long time.

Wearing shoes of the same colour as one's skin tone is essential for keeping an unbroken line from "fingertip to toe", as Cassa Pancho, the founder and artistic director of Ballet Black, a professional company for black and minority ethnic dancers, told the Telegraph newspaper.

Unfortunately it became common practice for ballet dancers of colour to stain ballet shoes with everything from spray paint to foundation, in a practice known as "pancaking", to attain a shade that complements their skin tone.

With this step, dancers from minority ethnic backgrounds can get pointe shoes in the shades "Ballet Brown" and "Ballet Bronze". In a video by the BBC, Marie Astrid Mence, a senior artist at Ballet Black, says it feels special to find her skin colour in a dance store.

"Finding your skin colour in a ballet shop is something very special. You have the feeling that you are part of the industry of dance and that nothing is impossible because it is accessible - your skin colour is there. Of course I have to fight to prove that I am more talented than these dancers, but at the end of the day, if you see your colour somewhere, then you are already inspired and it is not such a big deal anymore. It's just there, before your eyes. It's not a dream, it's present, it's now."

Virginia Johnson, 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."

But still, it's a step in the right direction, Johnson said.

"It was quite wonderful to be on stage and just to be myself, 100 percent the colour I was," she enthused. "One line, one shape, a colour that has integrity."

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