THE COLOUR OF BALLET
What difference does a shoe make?
“If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem”
The Black Lives Matter movement has swept the world and is affecting people, governments, movements and businesses in many nations. And rightly so. Western culture has talked of freedom, democracy and all being created equal, touting itself as a moral beacon to others around the world, while too often ignoring, or at best over-looking the racial bias, systemic prejudice and injustice that for many remains an everyday lived experience.
MDM is a company and a brand, yet at the end of the day we’re simply a small group of individuals every one of whom have been deeply moved by the Black Lives Matter movement and wanting to be a part of the shift in consciousness and affect change as best as we’re able. And while as individuals we all have a part to play, what can MDM, a relatively new company producing footwear for dance do in this space? Does the colour of a ballet shoe matter?
On the one hand there’s a legitimate argument that most ballet shoes aren’t made nor designed to match anyone’s skin tone. The pink ballet shoe that is the standard for female dancers doesn’t match the skin tone of the vast majority of dancers wearing them. It’s made to match the tights they all wear, which provides the uniformity of look that has been a staple of exam work and well-known ballets for hundreds of years. Ballet’s such as Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide etc. where all the Willi’s or Swans of the Corp de Ballet look the same as intended by the choreographer’s vision. Indeed, many a dancer will tell you how they’ve not only donned pink tights and ballet shoes, but also applied white-wash on their upper body before a performance to better ensure that uniformity. That was simply the look of the character in order to tell the story as originally envisioned.
Male dancers tend to wear white or black as their staple shoes and no-one would reasonably make the argument that’s because it’s trying to match their skin tone. Again, the shoe matched the white or black socks and tights they wore, and typically wear.
Yet what of “beige” or Caucasian coloured “flesh” or “nude” footwear, which is now widely available through most brands, though is typically a significantly less sought-after line? This is actually a relatively new development. Only 20+ years ago if dancers wanted a “flesh” coloured shoe for a particular role then they would sit down, grab the base they typically used on their face as make-up and proceed to paint their shoes. There was simply no other option and so this was normal for everyone regardless of ethnic background. No one had shoes specifically made for their particular flesh tone. There were the colours or tones used in the traditional ballets, or you did it yourself.
Fast forward to 2020 and dancers, even in large ballet companies, no longer always perform in tights. Nowadays they’ll often perform bare-legged and shoe colour matters, as it needs to match to keep the long line of the leg. As such there’s been more of a movement – still very much in process – to be able to offer tones better resembling the diverse tones of dancers.
Yet this isn’t as easy as it might be assumed. Whose tone? A Caucasian tone can change markedly from tanned to untanned, from Russia, to France, to Germany and down to Spain and Italy. African American tones vary widely, and then consider Islander dancers from the Pacific, Indigenous dancers across Australia, those from the Indian subcontinent, the many Asian countries, the Middle East, South America, Africa etc. etc. all with slightly different natural colouring, not to mention all the many diverse offerings from those of mixed racial heritage? Whose tone do you manufacture for when the cost to produce a size run and hold stock in a particular colour precludes the investment unless there’s a strong market pull factor?
And so perhaps we need to take a step back and ask a more foundational question.
Why is the pink tight the de facto attire for ballet wear and should it continue to be?
At MDM we were recently approached by a studio in Mumbai wanting our footwear. We instantly saw this as a wonderful opportunity to build numbers of people wanting a different shoe tone, which would make the investment financially viable, only to be told by them that they were happy with and wanted to continue to wear the traditional pink tights and so wanted the pink shoes to match. Though we attempted to change their minds they were resolved. A little confused we relented, but the question remained: why?
Though no-one knows for sure, the evolution of the pink tight is likely the result of wanting uniformity in ballets that emerged out of Northern European Nations like France, Russia and possibly the UK. It was likely a combination of wanting something close enough to a fair European skin tone, that everyone could put on for uniformity (Corp de Ballet), while also delivering the sense of purity and perfection as conceived by the elite of the time and conveyed through much of the story telling. Arguably – and perhaps an aspiring PhD student of dance will consider this as a topic of interest – perhaps it also connects with, and is an expression that needs to be reconsidered, of our deeper relationship to sunlight versus the night or dark, as expressed in pagan religions and passed down to later monotheistic ones. This equates light with the seen and the known and thus comfort, versus the dark, which typically equates with the unknown and so produces anxiety. On stage, we tend to seek the spotlight, just as in storytelling we tend to seek knowledge and understanding to overcome the obstacles in the path of our desires. The fact is, along with the virtues of a particular cultural time period and its associated traditions, often comes packaged their prejudices which need to be unpacked and re-evaluated.
Whatever the many reasons – functional, cultural and aspirational etc. – in turn most of the major syllabus have adopted and passed down this look to their students as the de facto ballet ideal. The brands in turn have – until now – responded to the needs of the market delivering what was asked for.
In 2020 however, it’s no longer adequate to merely respond. Instead we’re all asked to take a stand for what we believe and lead the cultural direction we feel most connected to. And to that end, larger and smaller, we all have a part to play.
Yet just as we don’t require or expect someone earning $20,000 to contribute the same amount of tax as someone earning 1 billion, nor a two-year old exciting start-up to offer the same diversity of product range as a 100 hundred old internationally established corporation, so too we all have to make the changes and contribute as we’re able. Size and scale matters in terms of what is financially viable for a company to do – no more so than now as we all try to climb out of the hole that is Covid-19 – and not everyone will have the resources to offer the kind of diversity we all want to see at the same rate.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to do better and do it faster; it doesn’t mean we’re powerless.
Regardless of who we are, we can all ensure that the language we use is more inclusive of diversity. Syllabus could re-consider whether a pink tight is really necessary for exam work, which would free up the conversation and allow for those wanting to dance in a tight better matching their particular skin tone to do so. Studios would also have to make for this allowance. Brands can examine the way they promote products to ensure the branding of dance is more welcoming to people of non-Caucasian backgrounds and offer more diverse tones as their resources permit. And dancewear factories and raw material suppliers could re-consider their minimum order quantities to make it easier for brands to purchase diverse tones, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all ordering standard. And we can all examine and continually re-examine our own personal actions and use of language at home, in the workplace, on social media etc. to ensure we’re rooting out any forms of prejudice and racial bias. It’s a chain we’re all part of, and shifts needs to happen at every link for real change to be efficient and effective.
By making these many small, positive changes continually as part of a concerted and dedicated process we will re-build the world anew and bring the justice, liberty and equality that we have longed hailed as the inevitable journey of Western culture.
And so yes, the colour of a dance shoe definitely matters and has its small role to play in that journey.
Tim Heathcote, CEO – MDM