Today, all DTH dancers—including students—wear flesh-colored tights. Photo by Joseph Rodman, courtesy DTH

Is Classical Ballet Ready to Embrace Flesh-Tone Tights?

Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.

It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.


With all the work being done worldwide to increase the number of black dancers in ballet, it was only a matter of time before we got here. Bare legs and flesh tone shoes are commonplace in contemporary ballet but in classical and neoclassical ballet, pink tights and shoes remain a linchpin.

Dance Theatre of Harlem first debuted flesh-tone tights and shoes in 1974 on the back leg of a European tour. Dancer Llanchie Stevenson was the catalyst: From her first days in the company, she consistently implored Arthur Mitchell to allow them to wear tights and shoes that matched their skin color. Stevenson explains, "One day I noticed that my arms were a different color than my legs, I thought that I looked so disjointed. I started wearing brown tights over my pink tights." Mitchell liked it so much he decided that all dancers had to wear tights to match their skin. The decision was a declaration of ownership of the art form, and a redefinition of classism.

Where did the tradition of pink tights come from anyway? In the 1790s, Austrian ballet dancer Maria Viganó shocked Parisian audiences when she and her brother Salvatore performed in sheer white muslin tunics, her legs covered by flesh pink hosiery that gave the appearance of nakedness. At the time, the Paris Opéra banned "nude pink" due to social concerns, but by the end of the 19th century, pink tights were the norm. The intent was to have both the hosiery and shoes disappear, and back then, pink was as tastefully close to nude as they could get without having the theaters burned down in scandal.

Since then, little thought has been given to this tradition, but it is safe to say that the sole reason ballet tights and shoes are pink is because at the time the tradition started, all of the dancers were white. As racial uniformity decreases, should we not reevaluate the relevance of pink tights and shoes? Could it not be argued that the actual "tradition" is that the tights and shoes should match the dancer's complexion?

Most of the arguments against flesh-tone tights center around the preservation of the classical aesthetic of uniformity. It could be said that brown tights work for DTH because they are a group of dancers of color, therefore the brown tights are in a sense uniform. But when there are only one or two dancers in the corps wearing brown tights, some believe that it "breaks the line."

This begs the question: How much difference is there between a brown arm and head and a brown leg in a line? Not much. But there are directors who still see discernible brownness in the corps to be problematic.

In the mid-1980s when Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson (not related to Llanchie) cast an up-and-coming Lauren Anderson in his ballet Peer Gynt, it was the first time her skin tone was artistically discussed. "The costume was a unitard that went from (white) flesh tone to green, when I put it on it didn't look right, so they dyed the legs to match my skin, and that was the first time that it was done," says Anderson. Stevenson was also open to her wearing her natural hair in the role so long as it was thematically tied-in.

Later, during a Nutcracker tech rehearsal, Stevenson found that Anderson's legs in pink tights as Sugarplum appeared grey under the lights. They decided to test a few shades of brown but none looked right. "Finally, Ben said, 'Call Dance Theatre of Harlem and find out what they use.' That was music to my ears," Anderson recalls.

Once she had done Sugarplum with brown tights and shoes, she says, "It didn't make sense for me to go back." As she rose through the ranks to principal, Anderson wore a variety of shades depending on the role: pink if she was in the corps or in a Balanchine work, tan for classical ballets or a richer brown—more her real complexion—in her principal roles.

Tights are just the beginning when companies are seeking to truly honor diversity. The myriad technical considerations for dancers of color extends to costuming, hair, make-up and lighting. "You light the set and costumes perfectly, you have to light the dancers as well," says Anderson. "All of my partners had to contend with an extra spot on them when they danced with me."

If companies want to be inclusive, artistic teams can no longer be on auto-pilot. It requires seeing productions with fresh eyes, possibly reconsidering the blonde wigs, certain hair hairstyles, and even scenery (when Anderson danced Cinderella, Houston Ballet created new portrait of a black mother). "As part of my artistic vision, I wanted to find a natural look for all my dancers. Pink tights are traditional, but it was important to me that we found something that was natural for Lauren," says Ben Stevenson.

Pacific Northwest's artistic director Peter Boal learned the impact of having an open dialogue with dancers of color when he asked student Samrawit Saleem how she wanted to wear her natural hair for the role of Clara. The Nutcracker photo of her double strand twist went viral.

Samrawit Saleem, photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

A by-product of inviting others in is that you have to engage with them and take their feelings and experiences into consideration. You must ask people what would make them feel included, not assume you know. It requires that you authentically, with empathy and compassion, examine the conditions that you have been operating out of and be willing to let go of some and redesign others.

When you are seeking change, you can't expect things to stay the same. When ballet organizations started their journey toward diversity, most were solely focused on increasing the number of brown bodies on stage. However, it is becoming clear that the issues run far deeper. Inclusion requires integration. Ballet is learning that you can't just add brown bodies, you have to change the culture. But we can start can start to rebuild from the ground up with shoes and tights.

Latest Posts


Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021