By Karyn D. Collins
When Dance Theatre of Harlem switched in the early 1970s from traditional pink tights to the practice of dyeing its dancers’ tights and shoes to match the range of brown and tan skin tones among the dancers, the move sparked a revolution in the dance community. Predominately black dance schools and companies across the country began to adapt the look.
But today, more than 40 years after DTH started that revolution, many dance company and school directors say it’s still difficult to find a full range of dancewear products that match darker skin tones.
On Monday, April 25, 2016, the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), which is helmed by Denise Saunders Thompson, chairperson and executive director, launched a week-long social media campaign to raise awareness about the issue. It ran from April 25-29, 2016, during National Dance Week. Cristine Davis, owner and director of District Dance Arts in Washington, D.C., and spokeswoman for the IABD campaign, talked with From the Green Room about Dyeing to Match.
Dance/USA: What is Dyeing to Match?
Cristine Davis: Dyeing to Match is a national awareness campaign meant to draw attention to the lack of nude dancewear on the market for darker skin tones. We see this as an issue of equity and diversity within the dancewear industry. The industry produces things that they say are nude but that are a shade that is always lighter than the skin tones of many of our students and dancers.
D/USA: How will the campaign work?
Davis: Each day of the campaign has a different theme highlighting a different aspect of this issue, from the need for dancewear items that come in a range of colors for recreational dance studios all the way to the needs of professional dancers. Each day of the campaign will highlight that need and focus on increasing the awareness of how the limitations affect the dance field.
The first day, April 25, was basically an introduction answering the questions about the campaign such as, “What is this about?” The introduction will also tell people more about what they can expect throughout the week. During the week we’ll look at what products are available on the market, including which products are available in which sizes, and the actual colors offered. What do these dancewear manufacturers call nude and how does that compare to brown.
Day two of the campaign takes a look at what’s on the market … So during the week we’ll look at what products are available on the market including which products are available in which sizes and the actual colors offered. What do these companies call nude and how does that compare to brown [Day two of the campaign asks dancemakers to list the items and brands they buy, only to have to dye them later].
Day three, Wednesday, is a day to highlight and acknowledge the few dancewear companies that are making products specifically for black dancers. We’ll have a Twitter chat with owners of those businesses about their firms and what they offer.
The fourth day will be devoted to hearing from the field – black dance companies, schools, dance moms. This will be their chance to give their perspective on the problems they are finding with ordering products. They’ll also be encouraged to talk about what they go through coloring or dyeing their dance items.
On the final day of the campaign, April 29, we will make a formal request to the dancewear companies to set up a sit-down meeting. [As individuals,] many of us have been told by dancewear manufacturers that there’s not enough of a need to offer more products in shades for people with dark skin. This campaign is about demonstrating the need. Whose tights do you think we’re dyeing? We’re already their customers. We just want them to add more colors and do it on a consistent basis.
D/USA: How did this all come about?
Davis: This issue has come up before. There are Facebook groups. You meet people at events. And when I joined IABD with my studio this year, it came up there, too. I remember meeting someone for coffee at an IABD event and going on this rant because I couldn’t find any tights for my kids. We find two or three products offering this one shade of brown that doesn’t match anybody’s skin or their undertones.
D/USA: What additional issues have you and other teachers faced?
Davis: I had a conversation with a woman from a major dancewear company about the problem because it’s not just the colors that don’t match but they don’t make the colors in all of the sizes. She said there wasn’t a need but then she emailed me and said they would put the mocha colored tights I was looking for in production in the size [range] I hadn’t been able to find, sizes 2 to 6X. Now they’ve created another style tight, but it’s not available in the color and sizes we need. A lot of us need tights that fit three- and four-year-olds.
D/USA: What are some of the alternatives people use now?
Davis: People do a lot of dyeing. They soak tights in strong coffee or tea or they combine shades of Rit Dye. Some people use marker for the straps. They spray the shoes. And there are a few companies out there that sell dancewear in a range of shades of brown, but it can get a little pricey and very time consuming.
D/USA: Why is it important to have brown tights instead of the traditional ballet pink?
Davis: A lot of companies and schools follow the aesthetic of the professional dance companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem where the legs and feet match the skin tone. It’s about creating a complete, continuous line down the leg. As one studio owner friend said, “Your legs should match your arms.”
Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for more than 30 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, the Camden Courier Post, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, William Paterson University and Bloomfield College in N.J. A faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque and Mahwah, N.J., Collins is also a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.
May 4, 2016: In an effort to condense this piece from the original interview because of space limitations, the writer inadvertently omitted information that was the focus of the second day of the campaign. That material has been restored. This article was initially published on April 27, 2016.
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