In the ballet world, “pancake” doesn’t just mean a confectionery breakfast treat. The word is also used by ballerinas to describe a heavy, sweatproof foundation that serves as a base for stage makeup. But some dancers have found another purpose for the formula—it also doubles as paint for their pink pointe shoes.
Ingrid Silva, a Brazilian dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, has been painting her shoes ever since she began her career at eight years old. “Every week I have to paint a new pair of pointe shoes brown just to match my skin color,” Silva, 27, tells Allure. “If I wear pink pointe shoes, the contrasting colors would cut my lines.” She currently uses Black Opal’s True Color Pore Perfecting Liquid Foundation in Ebony Brown.
The manual ritual can take hours. Not only that, Silva has to paint her shoes in batches. Most dancers get one performance out of a pair before they’re deemed “dead,” but because of how laborious this makeover process is, Silva has to make hers last for several performances.
Searching for the perfect pointe shoes is an equally painstaking process. From the wideness of the toe box—the hardened tip of the shoes that encases the toes—to the length of the shank, the inner sole—there are many design elements a dancer must consider.
“It’s not easy as just finding a brand and putting on the shoes,” says Silva, who currently wears Veronese III by Japanese dancewear company Chacott. “It takes a lot of time to find the right shape and the right combination of comfort.”
You can probably commiserate with Silva if you’ve had problems finding the right nude lipstick or opaque tights that match your skin tone. The word “nude” is simply defined as flesh shades. But in practice, it’s commonly attributed to a lighter spectrum of color, from peachy pink to pale beige.
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Earlier this year, Eric Underwood, a black soloist for the Royal Ballet, made headlines when he posted an Instagram video of himself applying makeup on his ballet slippers. In the caption accompanying the video, Underwood implored dancewear brands to add more than one flesh-colored hue in their shoe inventories.
The narrow offering extends to clothes, as well. Default nude tights must be hand-dyed to match the painted shoes in order to create the seamless body line that gives the illusion of an airy, ethereal being. Silva used to stock up on Capezio’s Ultra Soft Transition Tights in cocoa, a color that’s been discontinued. “I’m sure it’s hard to fabricate so many different shades, but it’s about time to make clothing that fits every dancer,” she says.
Some brands have begun to challenge the norm. Christian Louboutin fans rejoiced when the designer expanded his flats collections to include seven different shades of nude—complete with the iconic red sole. Lingerie brand Nubian Skin quickly gained a popular following when Beyoncé and her dancers wore the label’s nude garments underneath sheer Balmain bodysuits during the Formation World Tour. Last week, Cult makeup brand Glossier celebrated its range of nude tints with a photo of a Rubik’s Cube decked out in flesh-toned shades.
Dancers like Misty Copeland, who made history by becoming the first African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre last year, are challenging the white-washed perception of what a classical ballet should look like. The emergence of philanthropic organizations such as Brown Girls Do Ballet, which provides resources and scholarships to young minority dancers, are also trying to change the game.
Through Brown Girls Do Ballet, swimsuit designer Whitney Bracey learned of the shortage of diverse tones in dancewear. Last March, she started Mahogany Blues, a Dallas-based dance apparel company that offers four flesh-colored leotards. “During my research, I found that many dancers have to dye their leotards because they couldn’t find options other than just beige,” says Bracey. “Dancers of color shouldn’t have to face this problem. These leotards should readily be available to them.” Due to popular demand, the line will include menswear and add two more shades—another darker option, and a paler shade—by the end of this year.
As for Silva, her contribution towards diversity has been focused on children. She teaches ballet to students in New York City public schools for Dancing Through Barriers, the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s art education program. “Ballet is an elite form of art. If you don’t have money, it’s hard to go see a performance,” she says. “I wish ballet companies would give tickets away to minorities and students. It would open the public’s eyes to our world.”
In her private life, Silva enjoys taking her dog, Frida, to French bulldog meet-ups in the park. “She’s very chill and relaxing, pretty much the opposite of who I am.” She also plans to study dance psychology in the future, though she says she could see herself dancing well beyond retirement. “When I perform, it’s something from out of this world,” she says. “You get to represent yourself, represent your country, represent your family. I feel like that’s what makes me feel beautiful.”
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