The importance of ballet shoes for brown-skinned ballerinas and how they are made


Ballet Black, a dance company composed of diverse dancers, and Freed, a ballet shoe manufacturer in the UK are working together to flip diversity numbers on their heads, from the dancers themselves to the shoes on their feet.

In 2015, Misty Copeland became the first African American prima ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre but not just there - she's the first in and major international company. Period. So it's no surprise that beige nude shoes have become the industry standard.

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"Ballet Black is a London-based company and its specifically for black and Asian dancers and it started because there was a lack of black and Asian representation in ballet world," says Circa Robinson, seniour artist at Ballet Black.

In 2018, they partnered up with Freed, their go-to ballet shoe manufacturer. Together they created a line with brown and bronze pointe shoes for their dancers as an alternative.

But why is colour matching so important in ballet anyway?

Ballet is all about graceful lines, a pointe shoe that matches the ballerina's skin tone extends the line the ballerina makes from her leg to the tip of her toe. In the past most dance companies sported pink, beige or white tights so colour matching to the shoe wasn't a huge problem. But now, more modern companies are ditching tights for bare legs and if your skin is, say, a lovely caramel colour a pink ballet shoe totally ruins your line.

"For me in my company I feel comfortable and my brown shoes because it is extending that line that we want," says Circa.

Before their partnership ballerinas resigned themselves to an old-school tradition - pancaking. Pancaking is taking a typical beige or pink ballet shoe and coating it with a layer of foundation.

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Circa says: "I remember having to pancake my first shoe at 15 [years old] and it was nothing unusual. I never thought about a shoe being made in my colour where I wouldn't have to pancake. Once I pancaked the shoe I would usually have to touch it up after a couple of wears just because, naturally, the makeup on the fabric would start to fade with the sweat and the wear and tear of dancing anyway."

While dancers of all colours pancake shoes, it's more of a necessity for dancers who's complexion isn't on any of the shelves.

"My reaction to the Freed shoes it was for me a long time coming. As a dark-skinned ballerina to have something that is just kind of  catering to my darkness, I felt like someone is listening," adds Circa. 

Freed produces more over 330 000 ballet shoes a year, each one handcrafted to suit a dancer's individual needs.

Seniour manager at Freed of London, Sophie Simpson says, "The life of a pointe shoe really begins with myself and the rest of the team when we go out to meet the dancer. We have what we call a pointe shoe fitting and we discuss with the dancer and maybe teachers or the ballet staff exactly what each girl needs."

When ballet black expressed the need for skin-tones pointe shoes, Freed delivered. In their London workshop they make everything, from the raw materials to the finished products. The maker builds the shoe from scratch, laying the soles, placing the block and attaching the insoles. 

"They're baked in an oven overnight, like a cake, then the next day they are quality checked and they go through to the binding and finishing room." The shoes are stitched by hand and bound together.

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Freed isn't the only manufacturer that's working to serve dancers of colour, Provensen credits American ballet shoe manufacturer Gaynor Minden as well. But while these manufacturers are making great steps in a white dominated industry, the world of ballet still has a long way to go in terms of inclusion.

Circa says, "As far as diversity it's a must, times are changing, black ballet dancers we've always been around, we not going anywhere. It's just highlighting those little things it's not taking away from the traditions, it's just a little something for us to feel good about being a world that we not always feel involved in. I love ballet to death, having these pointe shoes is just a little something of showing how much I love it.[sic]".

Compiled by Phelokazi Mbude.

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