Robin Williams, a 60-year-old ballet dancer, recently experienced a meaningful first – performing on pointe in shoes that matched her brown skin tone.
She purchased the brown shoes, complete with matching ribbons and elastics, for her Nutcracker show in December 2022.
Breaking Barriers After 60 Years in Ballet
Williams reflected on early in her career in the 1960s, when she was the lone black ballerina in her dance company. At that time, brown pointe shoes were not an option. Her teacher emphasized the pink tights were meant to match the dancers’ skin tones.
“I never forgot that,” Williams recalled. The traditional pink shoes break the visual line of black dancers’ bodies, disrupting the intended graceful effect. Still today, some directors demand dancers of color wear pink for “uniformity.”
Pancaking and Petitions: The Push for Inclusive Gear
While more shade options exist now than in 2020, “pancaking” – covering shoes in makeup or foundation to alter their color – remains common practice for dancers of color. Misty Copeland, a renowned prima ballerina, shared her extensive pancaking routine, feeling excluded by the lack of appropriately hued gear.
In September 2022, Copeland started a petition to add more diverse ballet shoe tones to Apple’s emoji options. Dance teacher Cortney Taylor Key called traditional European pink “a tradition, and it can change.”
Still, she modifies her own shoes to match her complexion – a tedious, costly process that wears down shoes quickly.
Milestone Moment Symbols Hopeful Future
For Williams, performing in shoes representing her identity was a breakthrough. She hopes rising stars like Copeland, willing to openly discuss issues of representation and inclusion, propel positive change in the ballet world.
As more dancers raise their voices, companies feel increasing pressure to make gear for all skin tones readily available.
Moments like Williams’ remarkable performance symbolize long-overdue progress toward an art form welcoming dancers of all backgrounds.