Dancing While DarkDecember 20th, 2016 by Tayo Ade
“Nude is just a color, right? Why are you injecting race into this?”
The above neatly summarizes the DMs and emails we often receive at FleshTone.net from persons aggrieved by our brand. These messages are from people who are usually alarmed that the beige-colored nude they know and hold dear, is starting to lose its universal truth.
This assumption of a universal truth, a uniform hue, a neutral default position, is something that is particularly relevant to dancers. It’s also one of the main reasons I started FleshTone.net.
During my adult ballet class some years ago, my teacher enthusiastically described the endless journey of striving for ‘good line’, and how this is perfectly matched by a dancer’s apparel. Our legs were stretched over the barre, and in that moment, I fully appreciated just how jarring and out of place my favorite beige Blochs were on my dark skin. The ‘flesh’ Bloch slippers were not MY FleshTone! They did not approximate me, nor were they made with me in mind.
That day was the beginning of my journey to #banishbeige as a default ‘nude’.
I’ve always loved dance as an ‘extra-curricular’ activity. Back in 2011, I was doing three different styles of dance, and was wearing ballet slippers to the rehearsals for each of these genres. At the very least – could I get ballet slippers in my FleshTone?
To my surprise, the answer was a resounding NO – and it remained NO – until today.
While ballet slippers are available to buy in a multitude of funky colors, brown is not one of them. In fact, any shade of brown seemed to be out of the question.
I checked Capezio…nothing in brown. They make the Capezio Cobra and the Capezio Freeform. Both of these colors suit a light to medium caramel hue and are profiled on FleshTone.net…but nothing to cater for Dancing While Dark(er).
I checked Bloch…their canvas pro elastic ballet slipper is one of my favorites – and it comes in ‘Flesh’. But it’s not the flesh of those of us Dancing While Dark. It does have a hint of a camel hue, but it’s suitable for light skin tones only…
I checked Sansha…their Pro #1C in Sienna slipper is an interesting color. It’s suitable for light to medium caramel tones, though the shoe has a hint of blush. The Sansha slippers are nice, but they are not going to create that seamless line all dancers strive for if you’re Dancing While Dark.
I checked other specialized brands. A wide range of pink and beige was always available – but no brown or dark caramel. While Trimfoot makes a Jazz Boot in chocolate (which I own and wear regularly), I wanted a ballet slipper, which I consider to be more versatile. I also wanted to know where to get quality pointe shoes in deeper hues. There was nothing.
Could anyone honestly tell me that people of color didn’t dance? Let’s be real. The question was – who was going to take action?
The International Association of Blacks in Dance
As part of the IABD #dyeingtomatch Campaign in April 2016, I spoke with IABD’s executive director, Denise Saunders Thompson. I wanted to inquire about dance companies who were catering to those of us who were Dancing While Dark.
I wanted to know what these companies were doing about representation at the most basic level – the clothes that we dance in. Part of the aim of the IABDs #dyeingtomatch campaign was to ‘sit down’ with some of the major dance brands and discuss their lack of diversified products.
While this certainly was a positive step forward, I felt that we could go further. I wasn’t content with a seat at the table of those companies who had ignored me for so long. So what were black owned businesses doing about the lack of diversity in dance apparel (and shoes specifically)? That’s what I wanted to know. And what was I doing about it?
Going it Alone
As I thought more about what Dancing While Dark meant, I had an idea that was both premature and naïve – why couldn’t I manufacture diverse ballet slippers and pointe shoes?! After all, I thought, it’s not like the major brands manufactured their wares in the USA. Why couldn’t I dispatch an order to South East Asia and solve a major diversity issue and (simultaneously) start a lucrative side business? The answer: time and capital.
I had neither.
While I truly admire inspiring women like Ade Hassan who endlessly grind to make their dreams an international success story, being in a position to emulate that success was going to take time I didn’t have.
So for the entrepreneurs out there, here’s what I learned on my short lived journey to being global supplier of diverse dance shoes:
1. Lost in translation: While the internet helps, there is no substitute for face to face meetings. The internet turns a 30 second face to face discussion into a 3 day long email transaction. This is particularly difficult where there is a language barrier.
2. Use a Chinese Middlewoman: After almost zero success in communicating online with a range of Chinese manufacturers, I engaged a lovely Chinese agent to do the communication for me. She simply picked up the phone and spoke to the companies in question. So. Much. Easier.
3. Minimum quantities will kill you: Okay, we need to discuss minimum quantities. MQ are possibly the biggest issue standing in the way of diverse dance footwear. The manufacturers (for reasons unknown) say that they don’t have the brown/caramel dye. In order to justify buying new dye, they need you to commit to a minimum order. This is often in the range of 1000 pairs. There is often no sample offering. If your base pair of shoes is about $8USD wholesale, your first run will be $8000USD – not too bad for a start-up business. But what if the dye is not the right color? You really need to visit the factory to see for yourself. Add the cost of flights, accommodation and a chaperone to your $8,000. Not many start-ups can afford a bad batch worth $8000. So the beige status quo persists.
4. Try local: As always, one of the main benefits of importing from China is the low labor costs. But who really wants to create diverse dance wear off the back of (often female) cheap labor? We all wear clothes made in China, but it does feel different when you’re the one calling the shots on production. At FleshTone.net, we love companies like Naja who are changing that particular conversation. When we contacted local Australian company Salvios Shoes they said – “yes we can do the color you want – but we’re closing down“. It was too late. So don’t forget your local manufacturers, you never know.
5. #DyeToMatch: One of the best ways to diversify your dance wear is to dye it yourself. While pancaking with your own foundation is time consuming and unpolished, brands like Kinetic Essentials are a go-to for so many dancers who want to elongate the glorious lines of their body with perfectly matched apparel. Dyeing shoes is not fun for those of us who despise anything that resembles crafting, but dyeing your shoes and tights is definitely a sound option.
Hello Grishko USA
While I was carrying out my reconnaissance for Dancing While Dark, I came across the well-known and established company – GRISHKO, proudly proclaiming that no custom order was too difficult.
So – taking a seat at the table, I dared to ask Grishko the question. Can you make ballet slippers in brown? More than one type of brown? I didn’t want to beg for diversification. I wanted to see if Grishko could live up to their existing claims regarding custom orders. And it turns out they could. Grishko USA came THROUGH.
I was able to order brown canvas ballet slippers in Grishko model 6 in dark brown. I also ordered Tan to get a witness for my caramel hued ladies, but I don’t necessarily recommend these over the Capezio Freeform. The Grishko Tan is peachier and lighter than it appears in the pictures on this blog. The brown however, is a breakthrough.
I’m a dancer who likes elastic, so I ordered some brown elastic from the lovely folk at Welchs Workshop (which I wear shiny side down).
So for those of you who have been sliding into our DMs about these shoes, here’s what you need to know about Grishko:
1. Is it a good brand? The Grishko brand is Russian based and has been around forever. The brown ballet slippers are made in Russia. They can be ordered exclusively from the Grishko’s flagship New York store (not from the Russian store).
2. How do I order? Well as it turns out, Grishko has a minimum order requirement for dark brown ballet shoes (again, it’s a cost recovery for the dye issue). The minimum quantity is much more achievable – it’s just TWELVE (12). That’s not to say YOU need to order 12 pairs of brown ballet slippers. You simply register your details with email@example.com – and once the list reaches 12, the order is placed. In my own opinion, the slippers run small. So get confirmation on sizing if you can.
3. What’s the cost? Approximately $33USD per pair. It’s pricey I know. Until Dancing While Dark ceases to be a ‘special case’, expect to pay more than your lighter skinned colleagues.
4. Can they do pointe shoes in brown? That’s a good question. We know for sure that they can do a light-medium brown (worn below) in a range of their pointe shoes styles. It’s a Misty Copeland-esque color, and they do this by using the underside of bronze satin. It’s a non-shiny look, but will match the FleshTone of some of lighter dancers of color. And there is no minimum order on these. As for a deep brown? It’s still a waiting game for someone to take up this challenge. Grishko are almost there I feel.
Meanwhile, I LOVE wearing my Grishko slippers to rehearsals and getting into formation on the ballet barre.
I look in the mirror and I’m wearing Nude Barre tights and Mahogany Blues Dance Apparel to complete my line.
It’s a beautiful thing, being comfortable in your own skin.
Your Hues – Coming Soon
If you think that ordering from Grishko is all too hard, then I have some good news. UK based black-owned brand ‘Your Hues’ is set to launch in early Spring. Your Hues is run by dynamic duo Claire and Marvyn. The duo are Londoners born to parents of Caribbean descent – and they will be producing leather ballet slippers in a range of FleshTone options, in sizes 4 to 8. They are still looking into making pointe shoes in different hues and fabrics, but have not yet confirmed with me that these will be available for their Spring launch. Your Hues is definitely breaking new ground, and we can’t wait to sample their wares!
We are also patiently waiting on Bloch’s Eric Tan. Remember when Bloch came to the table and said they would make ballet slippers in Eric Underwood’s ‘Tan’? Unless I missed it, I haven’t seen the launch of these yet – but hopefully these will be out for dancers in the near future.
I don’t see color. What’s the big deal?
…Said no person of color ever. The big deal is that dancing in appropriate apparel is basic, fundamental stuff. That’s why it’s important. It’s the basics. On a superficial level it’s like trying to find the right eyebrow artist. Threading or waxing your eyebrows – it’s such a small job – but why is it so hard for beauty salons to master the art?! The right eyebrows make a huge difference to your face, opening it up to a range of beautiful possibilities. Once you find the right eyebrow artist, you’ll never leave her/him. It’s such a basic thing. The same goes for both fashion and dance apparel.
On a deeper level, it’s about being comfortable in your own skin on stage and at rehearsals. You KNOW that those beige ‘Flesh’ Blochs aren’t made to ‘approximate’ you, but you can ignore this. You wear them, dye them and continue on regardless. Dancing While Dark presents a whole host of other challenges that you need to deal with. But if this basic issue can be resolved before you even leave the house for your rehearsals or the stage, it’s one less thing you have to think about or fight for.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need any more information about Dancing While Dark.
Special thanks to Grishko and I.M Wilson Co Inc., the exclusive distributor for Grishko products in the United States. Special thanks also to Kirk and Judy at Grishko NYC.
(*This is not a sponsored blog, all views are my own).