Brown Ballet Shoes Are Making Dancers of Color Feel Welcomed and Accepted

"It's kind of like a welcome mat,'' said Virginia Johnson with Dance Theatre of Harlem. "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"

Before professional ballerina Ingrid Silva takes the stage, there's been one chore she's often had to perform that she hopes will soon be a thing of the past. 

Silva, a Brazilian-born ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, has to spend time "pancaking" the traditional pink pointe ballerina shoes by painting them brown to match her skin. 

The shoes have always been a lighter pink tone since the inception of ballet. Only recently have shoemakers started producing pointe shoes in darker tones for ballerinas of color. 

"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 first-hand. 

"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 Theater, 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. 

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." 

Anything to provide more opportunity to potential dancers in minority communities would be welcomed by Copeland, who is one of the few prominent role models for women of color in ballet. 

"When you don't have the means to be a part of it, or your community doesn't have access to it, there's not gonna be dancers that come in to be able to train,'' she 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. 

"Having the platforms that I have ... these are all spaces that can reach the masses,'' she said. "I've had these conversations with black people where they're like, '(Ballet) is not what we do,' and I'm like, 'Have you ever seen a ballet?' No. 

"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." 

What seems like a small change in creating slippers and shoes to match the skin tones of ballerinas of color may help attract the next Ingrid Silva or Misty Copeland. 

"Representation matters a lot,'' Silva said. "It feels empowered. It feels like you belong. It feels like dance is for everyone, and you can also be part of it." 

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