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Popular dance shoe companies vow to make ballet shoes for dancers of color

Dancers of color have had to wear traditional pink ballet shoes or paint them brown to match their skin tone, but now that's changing.
/ Source: TODAY

A long overdue issue in the dance world has finally been addressed on a large scale as the result of a petition that received more than 300,000 signatures online.

Shoe maker Capezio responded on Wednesday to an online petition asking the manufacturer to make brown pointe shoes and inclusive clothing. The 133-year-old company announced it will start selling darker shades of its popular pointe shoes in the fall.

Ingrid Silva, like many dancers of color, has had to "pancake" or paint and powder her ballet slippers to match her skin color.

"As a family-owned company, our core values are tolerance, inclusion, and love for all, and we are committed to a dance world free of bias or prejudice," Capezio CEO Michael Terlizzi said in a statement to TODAY. "We support all dancers’ dreams to express themselves through the beautiful art of dance. While we provide our soft ballet slippers, legwear and bodywear in a variety of shades and colors, our largest market in pointe shoes has traditionally been pink.

"We recognize that custom made pointe shoes in any shade or color may not meet the needs of our customers. We have heard the message of our loyal dance community who want pointe shoes that reflect the color of their skin, and now will offer our two most popular pointe shoe styles as an in stock item available worldwide, Fall of 2020 in darker shades. We remain committed to adding colors and sizes to our global product offerings. Capezio is here to support the dance community worldwide. Thank you again for reaching out to us."

The petition also resulted in another major ballet shoe brand, Bloch, to announce on Tuesday that it will be introducing darker shades of its pointe shoes in the fall.

The petition, started by Pennsylvania woman Megan Watson, amplified the issue that ballerinas of color have done for years. The dancers spend time and money painting traditional pink ballerina shoes brown to match their skin tone, in a process called "pancaking."

Briana Bell, an 18-year-old black dancer from Dallas, brought attention to the petition with a tweet that has since been retweeted more than 150,000 times.

"Black dancers everywhere have to come out of their pockets to buy cheap foundations to “pancake” their ballet shoes continuously to match their skin tone as opposed to their white counterparts for which the pink satin ballet shoes are made for," Bell wrote. "Please sign this petition to help!!"

Bell, who has been dancing since she was three years old and is now a high school graduate headed to Alabama State University as a dance major, said that even three hours a week of dancing causes wear and tear on her pointe shoes.

"Imagine people who are professionals who go through six to 10 pointe shoes a week," Bell told TODAY. "Having to get my shoes ready, you have to make sure your makeup (on the shoes) dries on time, and you're having to constantly break in your pointe shoes, and our white counterparts don't have to do that."

Bell said she has heard from many white commenters who didn't even know about the issue.

"I think that it's very important because a lot of dancers kind of just take it because we're used to it," she said. "Us being left out of stuff like this, it seems normal to us at this point. A lot of white people have expressed their surprise that something that seems so simple has not been a luxury afforded to people of color."

Having large brands like Capezio and Bloch produce shoes for dancers of color also makes a crucial difference, according to Bell.

"People are sending me these online brands that make brown shoes or brands not based in major areas, and I'm trying to explain to them, that's not very practical," she said. "We need to go into the dance shop and get fitted for pointe shoes because if you get the wrong shoe, you can injure yourself.

"At this point, it's either sacrificing your comfort to get the shoe already brown or get the correct shoes and make it brown yourself."

Brazilian-born professional ballerina Ingrid Silva of the Dance Theatre of Harlem highlighted the issue of "pancaking" on TODAY last year.

"It's part of my identity,'' Silva told Morgan Radford on Sunday TODAY. "It's part of who I am. It's part of who I represent. And it's the look of our company."

"But it's a process that I wish that, if the brands pushed a little bit on their research, we didn't have to (go through). Because it saves time. I could just wake up and put them on and dance, you know?"

American manufacturer Gaynor Minden has been one of the first companies in recent years to produce shoes in shades of brown.

"Dancers of color need to feel welcome and supported, so they need to see clothing and shoes that look like they were designed with them in mind,'' founder Eliza Minden told Radford.

The shoe issue is just one of many hurdles that young dancers of color face when trying to break into ballet. Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre's first and only African-American female principal dancer, has experienced them firsthand.

Misty Copeland broke racial barriers as the first African American principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre.Mike Smith / TODAY

"There's so many underlying, subliminal messages that have been sent to people of color from the time ballet was created,'' Copeland told Radford. "When you buy pointe shoes or ballet slippers, and the color is called European pink, I think that it says so much to young people — that you don't fit in, you don't belong, even if it's not being said."

Since uniformity in the color of shoes is an important aspect of performance at traditional companies like the American Ballet Theatre, the primary slipper or shoe color is still pink.

At companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem, a lack of brown shoes over the years has meant that ballerinas have been dyeing their shoes since the 1970s until the recent creation of darker shoes.

American manufacturer Gaynor Minden has been one of the first companies in recent years to produce shoes in shades of brown. TODAY

Founding company member and current artistic director Virginia Johnson is hoping that having shoes to match darker skin tones becomes another small way to attract people of color to ballet.

"It's kind of like a welcome mat,'' Johnson told Radford. "A tiny thing, but a huge thing for a young person to feel like, yes, I can be part of it, and they're ready for me."

"Representation matters a lot,'' Silva said.

Copeland has also worked to raise awareness of ballet to a larger audience through a signature collection with Under Armour that she helped design, as well as becoming a face of Estée Lauder.

"I think it's taking that step that this can be a part of our culture, and this can be something that we can help to grow, and evolve so that we are a part of it, and we are represented, and our stories are told through these ballets. And so that's where I see the future of ballet going."

This story was originally published April 7, 2019.