By Sydney Hamblin
When the dance teachers gave her permission to buy her very first pair of pointe shoes, Katie Graber, a 17-year-old dancer at TC Dance Academy for the Performing Arts, noticed there was something odd about the dance shoes when she wore them. They didn’t match her skin tone like they matched her classmates’ skin tone.
Black dancers, especially female, are still a rarity when it comes to ballet. Although there has been a recent increase in awareness for diversity within the dance community, black dancers remain barely represented in the field.
Graber said that she had only ever seen pink pointe shoes growing up at her dance studio in northeast Indiana because there weren’t many black dancers on the team.
Pointe shoes were invented in the 1820s to allow dancers to dance on the tips of their toes with a block at the base of the shoe. They extend the dancer’s lines and help create the illusion that they are floating on air.
Graber said that, for a long time, she thought that all dancers wore the same color of pointe shoes, regardless of what their skin color was. It wasn’t until she saw a picture of Misty Copeland, an African American professional ballerina, wearing pointe shoes that matched her skin tone on social media that she started asking questions.
After seeing Copeland’s shoes, Graber immediately started researching black pointe shoes to see if they existed.
“I was disappointed and honestly kind of frustrated when I found out that those shoes weren’t something I could order online or buy at the dance store in Fort Wayne,” Graber said. “The way these girls were getting their shoes that color was from pancaking, as we call it in the dance world.”
A New York Times article describes “pancaking” as using foundation or acrylic paint to change the color of a pair of pointe shoes so they match the dancer’s skin tone. Typically, professionals use this method more often than young competition dancers.
Although Graber is not a professional ballerina in the corps, she still participated in the pancaking method that has been used to change the color of pointe shoes for dancers of color.
“I felt left out. I wanted to have shoes that matched my skin just like all my friends did. So my mom and I looked up videos on how to do it on YouTube and we attempted it.”
For dancers like Graber, the Black Lives Matter movement that followed the death of George Floyd changed a lot of things for African Americans, including things within the dance community.
The Black Lives Matter movement caused major pointe shoemakers such as Bloch, Capezio, Repetto and Suffolk to release statements saying that they were going to start making pointe shoes in a variety of shades for dancers of color, according to Pointe magazine.
Bloch was the first major pointe shoemaker that announced this news to the public, saying that the new shades would be available last fall.
“We have been intently listening, reflecting on what we are doing and what we can do better and acknowledge we have not been moving fast enough,” the company said in a statement. “Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, product development was severely slowed down, however we are fully committed to following through with these plans and confirm we will be introducing darker shades into our pointe shoes.”
Donna Winters, owner of Standing Ovation Performance Apparel in Fort Wayne, says that her store sells these pointe shoes for people of color in a variety of brands. Her store also sells tights and undergarments in various skin tones, which are frequently purchased by her customers.
“We do sell pointe shoes for people of color, but we do not carry them in our store,” Winters said. “If anyone is looking to buy a pair, we can place a special order and have them shipped to the store as soon as possible.”