Gaynor Minden began offering pointe shoes in brown shades in 2017. (John Curry, courtesy Gaynor Minden)

Beyond Pink Satin: Dancewear Companies Reckon with Implicit Bias

Implicit bias and racial stereotyping are rampant in the dance world. That's a fact dancers of color have always known. But the anti-racism protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd—protests whose effects have reverberated through a myriad of industries—are bringing new attention to the problem. Though dance has been heavily influenced by Black culture and creators, most of its large institutions are overwhelmingly white. Eurocentric body standards are still the norm in much of the industry. And dancers of color continue to face erasure in one of the most basic and necessary components of the art: dancewear.


The issue is especially prevalent in ballet. Pointe shoes, typically covered in light pink satin, are meant to blend into the leg, extending its line. But that pink covering isn't "skin tone" for everyone. For decades, Black and Brown dancers have been forced to spend money and time "pancaking" their shoes, coating them in foundation so that they match their skin color. (Brands like PointePeople, founded by a biracial couple, have created products to help make pancaking easier.)

In recent years, pointe shoe manufacturers have begun to acknowledge the issue. Gaynor Minden began offering shoes in "nude-for-all" shades at no additional cost in 2017. "I'd wanted to offer brown skin tones since 1986, even before the Gaynor Minden pointe shoe and company were realities," head designer Eliza Minden says. (The company initially couldn't afford to produce shoes in a range of shades.) In the early days of development, Minden consulted with the now-late Leslie Woodard of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and was upset to learn what dancers of color had to go through to find products that matched their skin tones. "Pointe shoes that more closely resemble the skin tones of BIPOC dancers are a powerful message of not just inclusivity, but of welcome," Minden says. "They say, 'Ballet wants you. You belong here.'"

Gaynor Minden shoes in (from left) Pink satin, Cappuccino satin, Mocha satin, and Espresso satin (John Curry, courtesy Gaynor Minden)

Other pointe shoe brands have also begun to embrace inclusivity—slowly, and then, thanks to public pressure, all at once. Freed began offering brown and bronze shoes in 2018, as part of a collaboration with Ballet Black. Last week, in response to a petition that received more than 169,000 signatures, Bloch announced that they would add more satin options to their pointe shoes. Quickly, Russian Pointe, Capezio, Nikolay, Grishko, and Suffolk followed suit, releasing plans to add inclusive shades to their pointe shoe collections later this year.

Of course, the problem goes well beyond pointe shoes. Alison Stroming, a Brazilian-born dancer, model, and business owner, has long been frustrated by pink "flesh-colored" tights and pale "nude" leotards. "It is so important for dancers to feel confident and comfortable in their dancewear, and to see themselves represented in the brands they choose to wear," she says.

To empower female dancers of all backgrounds, Stroming founded her own line, AS Dancewear. Inspired by the colors and styles of her home country of Brazil, and featuring mesh panels in a range of skin shades, the brand reflects dance's ability to unite individuals of different races, religions, and genders. To further support dancers of color, Stroming also created the AS Mentorship program, which develops young talents from around the world. "My dream is for all dancers of all backgrounds to have equal opportunity and embrace their unique qualities," Stroming says.

(From left) Audrey Mayernik, Josabella Morton, and Bella Jones in AS Dancewear (Collette Mruk, courtesy AS Dancewear)

Several other brands owned by dancers of color have made inclusivity a top priority. Ballet Café Naturals, which offers tights in six flesh-toned shades, and Blendz Apparel, which produces leotards, tights, and ballet and jazz shoes for diverse skin tones, consider their audiences not only when designing, but also when marketing and pricing their dancewear. They offer styles suited for a range of body types and skin tones, feature models of color on promotional materials, and sell pieces at accessible price points.

"As a dancer of color, it's very important to see dancewear companies using dancers of color to represent their brand," AS Mentee Iliana Victor says. "By having dancers of color as a part of their team, they're actively encouraging me and the younger generation, saying that we too can become great dancers and be accepted into society."

Iliana Victor in AS Dancewear (Collette Mruk, courtesy AS Dancewear)

Inclusive dancewear continues to be the exception rather than the rule. Recently, more and more dancers of color have come forward about their negative experiences shopping for dancewear. Second Skin Costumes came under fire last week for using homogeneous models, resisting feedback, and refusing to do custom orders for BIPOC dancers. (In response to backlash on social media, the company launched a scholarship fund aimed at supporting dancers of color.)

The recent announcements by Bloch, Capezio, and other large dancewear companies mean real change might be on the horizon. But we must keep holding brands accountable, making sure they continue to promote inclusivity and showcase diversity. A dancer should never have to worry about finding tights to match their skin tone, or foundation rubbing off their pointe shoes—they should be able to focus on their performance. Black lives matter, and Black dancers matter: Dancewear should reflect that.

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When School of American Ballet student Alexandra de Roos was 8 years old, she placed a collection box at her dance studio for others to donate their gently used dancewear. De Roos, now 17, has since turned that single collection box into a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize economic barriers in the performing arts with free dancewear and classes.

De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

After SAB shifted its winter term online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, de Roos decided to expand Peace Love Leotards. She reached out to dance companies, resulting in partnerships with brands including Jo+Jax, Lone Reed Designs, RubiaWear and Wear Moi.

"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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