In the world of ballet, the word “pancake” doesn’t mean a delicious treat: It means the sweat-proof, streakproof, bulletproof makeup worn on the faces of dancers before they get on pointe and on stage. But some dancers spend hours each week applying pancake to their ballet shoes to to ensure that they match the skin on their legs. They have no choice—ballet shoes only come in “flesh” colors for people with light skin. But now, reports Kirstie Brewer for the BBC, that’s changing.
Brewer writes that thanks to the public complaints of Eric Underwood, a soloist for the Royal Ballet who is black, ballet shoe manufacturer Bloch has decided to create a line of ballet shoes in flesh tones for people with dark skin. They’ll be called “Eric tan” in honor of Eric himself.
It all started when Underwood posted a video to his Instagram about his ritual of “pancaking” his ballet shoes to match his skin. “If you create more than one flesh tone I’ll love you forever!” he said to ballet shoe manufacturers. He tells Brewer that the process of pancaking is messy, takes up to half an hour at a time, and has to be repeated after performances. Even worse, he has to get new shoes every four days.
Underwood’s comments about his ritual underscore an ongoing problem with diversity in the ballet community. Though Misty Copeland recently made headlines for becoming the first black woman principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, ballet remains a harsh world for performers of color. Despite many companies' growing commitment to make the world of ballet more diverse, ballet companies are still far from representative of the racial diversity of the communities they serve.
And then, there are the clothes. The satin-covered “European pink” shoes traditionally create a long, unbroken leg line that imitates a bare foot. But for dancers whose legs aren’t pinky white, there have historically been few options. And black legs look different inside of pink tights, which challenges the uniformity so prized by the profession.
Dancers of color aren’t the only ones who pancake their shoes—some do so to dull their shoes in response to directors’ wishes or to draw attention away from their feet. But there’s nothing dull about Underwood’s new signature shoe. “Applying makeup to my shoes is time-consuming and messy,” Underwood tells Smithsonian.com. “This is such a breakthrough in the world of ballet.”
The shoes aren’t available to the general public yet, but while Bloch prepares to roll them out, Underwood alone gets to dance in them. By design, the shoes are not made to be noticed, but keep a careful eye out for the flesh-colored shoes, introducing some much needed diversity in the ballets in which Underwood stars.