Major Ballet Shoe Supplier Diversifies Their Shoes

17 hours ago
Originally published on November 10, 2018 9:22 am
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(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.

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