The ballet world has always been very white. The number of non-white dancers in top companies is a very small number, as are companies that actually supply these dancers with pointe shoes that match their skin tone is even smaller.
The amount of pointe shoes, the “toe-shoes” worn by ballerinas on stage, that ballerinas go through in a week is large. These shoes do not stay in her rotation for very long as she often needs new shoes for performances. For white ballerinas, buying new shoes is as easy getting them from their favorite company; but for Black ballerinas, it is not that simple.
Most people know who Misty Copeland is, the first Black woman to make principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, but she joins only a small number of African American ballet dancers to make principal dancers in different companies.
However, in all of this, there are even fewer companies who make shoes for Black ballet dancers. Pointe shoes are meant to look like an extension of her feet. The only color, for a long time, was a pastel pink. Then, there were some variations on the pink color, but that was the extent of the change. When the shoes (and tights) were made, they were made for white dancers.
Black ballerinas have often had to paint their own shoes and considering the staggering amount of pointe shoes that a ballerina will buy each year, means that she is buying a lot of paint. It means she will work twice as hard outside of performances and class to make these shoes make her skin color, something most white ballerinas would never think twice about.
More recently, there has been an American pointe shoes company, Gaynor Minden, that has included more color variations in their satin. They have added three new, darker colors (opposed to their singular pink satin beforehand) to their line up. These colors, though they don’t seem like much (they aren’t), are doing more than a lot of other shoe companies who still only make pink satin and expect Black ballerinas to just paint their shoes.
There is another company making headway in having more satin colors available: Freed of London. This English company has been making pointe shoes for a long time, and in October of last year, they added two more colors to their mix: brown and bronze. While this company is even more limited than Gaynor Minden, it is also trying to be more inclusive. They work with a company called Black Ballet, which is an English dance company, to provide shoes for their dancers. Although this is important, this cannot and should not be the end-all be-all
The problem that ballerinas still run into is that they may not dance well or fit well into the company’s shoes. Even though these two companies make shoes in different colors, not all Black ballerinas shop there because these shoes don’t feel right to them. Each pointe shoe company makes their shoes differently, and a ballerina tends to stick with one company until the end of her career, because she knows they work for her feet. For Black ballerinas to be limited to two companies that actually stock their color or painting their shoes is wrong.
So while these companies should be commended for their effort to include more skin tones in their satin line up, this question arises – why is this the first time in 200 years that anyone has thought to make more colors than pink? Why are more companies not making a wider variety in shades?
Sources: The New York Times, Gaynor Minden, Freed of London, Vox