Growing up as a ballerina, Lenai Wilkerson carried two pairs of pointe shoes with her. One pink pair and one that matched her complexion.
Wilkerson, like many dancers of color, spent hours painting her second pair of ballet shoes to match her skin tone. This time-consuming and expensive task commonly called pancaking was a necessity for a large part of her dance career.
For the first time, Wilkerson can buy her favorite brand of pointe shoes in brown satin. Freed of London, a top ballet shoemaker that traditionally only carried pink and white satin pointe shoes, just launched a new line of brown and bronze colored shoes.
"Ballet has been around for centuries and for this to just now be happening, it's about time. It means the world to me and other brown ballerinas like me," Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson is a senior dance major at USC's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. For her, more shades of pointe shoes is one step toward making ballet more accessible to people of color.
"In contemporary ballet, you wear nude pointe shoes that match your complexion and it's just going to make everything so much easier," Wilkerson said.
Freed is not the first company to manufacture more shades of nude pointe shoes. In 2016, the U.S. company Gaynor Minden launched a new line of pointe shoes in cappuccino satin, mocha satin and espresso satin. Maria Montanez, the marketing director at Gaynor Minden, said it's important for manufacturers to take steps toward making ballet more inclusive.
"I've had a lot of dancers tear up when we talk to them about it because they're so used to having to do those extra steps to have to make themselves fit in," Montanez said. "It's something that we can do that says you're supposed to be here, we want you here, you fit in here, you belong here."
Since pointe shoes were invented in the early 1800's, most large pointe shoe manufacturers only carried pink and white colored shoes. Montanez said ballet has traditionally been slow to change.
"For a long time, even though there were dancers of color in multitudes, they were asked to wear pink because that was just 'what ballet is,'" Montanez said.
But many ballerinas are pushing back on this singular definition of ballet. Organizations like Brown Girls Do Ballet are promoting greater diversity and representation in the arts.
Ausia Jones is an ambassador for Brown Girls Do Ballet and a dancer at USC Kaufman. She said she's inspired by many African American ballerinas and is excited to wear the same shoes as her heroes.
“It took 200 years for them to create a shoe for African American ballerinas and I think that’s an incredible step for ballet,” Jones said.