Thursday 11 April 2019

'That took long enough!' Black ballerinas finally get shoes to match their skin

Ballet shoes have always been a pale peachy pink because it was assumed dancers were, too. Now a British footwear company is striking a blow for ballerinas of colour everywhere

When Ballet Black pack their bags for their coming spring tour, there’ll be some unusual footwear among their costumes. Not just the wellies they wear to portray striking South African miners in Ingoma, their latest work, but dozens of pairs of pointe shoes that are making their own little piece of history. Ballet Black have collaborated with shoemaker Freed to create the UK’s first pointe shoes in colours to match black and mixed-race skin tones.

 ‘A real change in ballet’ … pointe shoes by Freed. Photograph: Tyrone Singleton
The new shoes come in two versions, bronze and brown, and they’re a huge leap forward for inclusion in the ballet world. Indeed, the most common reaction from outside ballet, says troupe director Cassa Pancho, has been shock that they didn’t already exist. “I was a bit put out by that,” says Pancho. “All the effort that’s gone into this and the first thing they say is, ‘That took long enough!’ But you forget how different the dance world is to the wider world.”

Freed is one of the world’s leading pointe shoe brands, hand-making 300,000 pairs a year. But until now, every one of them was a pale peachy-pink. The ballet shoe was originally designed to look as if the dancer had bare feet, foot and leg in one seamless line, but of course dancers don’t come in one standard-issue colour. And with the rising profile of black dancers – the likes of Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince and Precious Adams – the ballet world is slowly coming to terms with reality.

Freed weren’t the first to notice, though. US company Gaynor Minden launched a new colour range in 2017, but Freed has always been a favourite brand among professionals – and when you find the shoe that works, you tend to stick with it. After people’s shock, says Pancho, came fascination. “It caught hold of the public’s imagination in a way I don’t think Freed or Ballet Black had anticipated,” she says. “We’ve had media from France, America, Brazil, Japan, Greece. We’ve made so many TV and radio pieces about the shoes – and unfortunately, in every one, they want to see our dancer Cira Robinson pancaking some pink shoes. So she’s actually done more pancaking since the brown shoes came out than she’d ever done before.”

‘It’s just going to look right’ … from left, Cira Robinson, Sayaka
Ichikawa and Marie Astrid Mence. Photograph: Tyrone Singleton

Pancaking is what dancers do to make their shoes match their skin colour by covering them in makeup. For Robinson, it was just part of the ritual involved in preparing your pointe shoes for dance: darning the ends, sewing ribbons on, breaking them in. Even when she danced with New York’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, where almost all the dancers are black or Hispanic, there was little disquiet about it, other than how time-consuming it was. “It was just how it was,” she says. “Before shows, at break-times, everyone was always pancaking.”

Robinson actually felt more uncomfortable about ballet’s traditional pink tights, which didn’t match the rest of her body. “Pancaking is a tradition,” says Robinson, “but ballet is also about inclusion. And the pink tights are, you know, ouch!”

 Ingoma by Mthuthuzeli November from Ballet Black’s triple bill.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
Freed is now also manufacturing tights to match the new footwear shades. One dancer who has already ordered hers is 12-year-old Afrozina Abaraonye, a student at Ballet Black’s dance school in London since the age of three. “Because I’ve been wearing pink since I was little, I’ve got used to it,” she says. “But there was always that weird thing when I was standing next to my friends and the pink ballet tights and shoes always looked better on them.”

On darker skins, pink tights sometimes give the girls’ legs a bluish-grey tinge, her mum points out. Abaraonye is impatient for her order – bronze pointe shoes and matching tights – to arrive. “I think I’m going to feel really happy because I won’t look awkward with my brown arms and white legs among the other girls. It’s just going to look right.”

Pancho echoes this point: “To walk in and see shoes in your own skin colour is a real change in the ballet world. So it might not seem like much that one little shop in London is doing this, but it’s a really significant change.”

Orders have been flowing in since October, especially from South America, South Africa and New York. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “The message I’ve taken away is that people feel very ‘seen’ by it,” says Pancho. By this she means the ballet world is acknowledging that not all dancers are white. “A lot of people who didn’t become dancers for various reasons have said, ‘If only this had existed in my day.’”

No more pancaking … Misty Copeland. Photograph: Danielle Levitt/The Observer
There has been online trolling, too. Of the “We’ve fed you, clothed you, educated you and now you want pointe shoes in your own skin colour!” variety, says Pancho. “I don’t follow it up, but there’s definitely an undercurrent of, ‘Ballet is pink, it’s meant to be pink.’”

That would be easily dismissed as internet nonsense if it wasn’t for the fact that some people in the industry see no place for black dancers in the traditional corps de ballet. When Benjamin Millepied resigned as director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016, he spoke of hearing a colleague say black dancers were a “distraction”.

The new shoes have put the issue back on the agenda. “This has really sparked something,” says Pancho, “which is a testament to the fact that it is really important that we keep talking about race – even though it’s uncomfortable.” She thinks people get too caught up in worrying about terminology (Pancho is still criticised for the name of her company, 18 years after it was founded) and it often shuts down conversation.

“It’s so easy to go down a path of being offended,” she says. “Sometimes you have to push through that to talk about the actual issue, which in our case is the lack of black women in ballet.” In their own small way, these shoes should go some way to changing that.

(Source: The Guardian)

No comments:

Post a Comment