It’s not just an ephemeral fashion trend or a fad. With more diverse dancers comes a market opportunity—and a business challenge—to become more inclusive.
Five years ago, Dance Spirit magazine featured Amanda LaCount on its cover, and in the fall of 2019 Pointe magazine featured English National Ballet star Precious Adams. These two accolades were not just shout-outs to very talented dancers; they also reflect important business trends for the dance industry to take note of: Dance is finally becoming more inclusive.
As two painful realities slowly begin to be dismantled—racism and body shaming—our stories and role models have expanded to reflect the broader change we want to see. While for many years Misty Copeland was one of few representatives for dancers of color, we are now entering a time where there are many more names and faces giving voice to the broad range of dancers in the world.
As the rarefied image of a bony swan with peachy skin recedes, dancewear manufacturers and retailers gain the opportunity to grow into a more diverse community that actively welcomes all colors, sizes and abilities.
What’s Happening in the Fashion Industry
The fashion industry has already been pushing forward into this new, more inclusive business model. Big companies like ASOS and Nike have seen the business possibilities in expanded sizing for activewear and have been rapidly adding new size options to capitalize on this movement. Earlier this year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America noted in a briefing on diversity that a shift toward greater inclusivity is not just a matter of sales growth, it is also a case for better business ethics. But the two are inextricably linked. The truth is, as dancewear manufacturers and dance retailers pick up on the business of inclusivity, more and more different kinds of bodies will be able to participate in our art and market with ease and confidence.
Eliza Minden of Gaynor Minden agrees, noting that her company’s decision to stock pointe shoes and tights in additional skin colors like cappuccino, mocha and espresso was not just a response to a fad or a hope for rapid sales growth, but rather reflects a longer-term vision and business strategy: “Ballet will eventually become more diverse and be a better reflection of society,” she says. “We want to be there from the beginning and be as welcoming as we can.”
While it is too soon to tell where the sales numbers fall, Minden has found feedback to be consistently positive. Schools have been reaching out to partner with Gaynor Minden on programs of inclusivity, and having more flesh tones in ballet shoes has led to an increase in the company’s tights sales of the corresponding colors.
A Global Market
Tayo Ade of FleshTone.net, an online resource for dancers looking to find products that are made for people of color, notes that inclusivity is a global market. Big companies, like Freed of London (in a new partnership with Ballet Black) and Bloch, have also begun to make shoes in new and darker shades of flesh tones. Sansha and Capezio are now offering dance apparel in a bigger spectrum of shades.
In sizing, there is not only a move toward a greater range of sizes, but more coverage options, too. “Our best-selling product is our Royal Leotard, which is one of our most supportive leotards,” says Julia Cinquemani, founder of Jule Dancewear and a professional ballet dancer. “I would say the popularity lies in offering coverage and support for girls who are busty.” Motionwear offers leotards up to size Adult 3X. Balera is making a classic tank leotard in 26 different colors that comes in both Child XL, with full front lining, and up to Adult XXL, with a built-in shelf bra. You Go Girl Dancewear, much like FleshTone.net, offers a selection of plus-size apparel from companies like Eurotard, Body Wrappers and Danskin.
Holly Bertucci, owner of The Dance Bag in Modesto, CA, has seen sales increase in both tights and, particularly during this time of year, under-leotards in corresponding flesh colors. Capezio tights style 1816, which comes in XXL and has a real elastic waistband for support, is a best-seller to entertainers and drag queens, she says.
“Many dance schools offer adult ballet,” says Bertucci. “Many of these dancers want to feel like a ballerina and wear pink tights. They seem happy that we provide a variety of size options.”
The Sales Picture: “Dancers Are Complex Consumers”
The question remains, is inclusivity good for business? This is a question that Ade has thought a lot about. “For the bigger brands, we would have to say the answer is yes,” she says. “These brands are household names and are widely available. For smaller brands, the road to financial success can be a harder (but no less rewarding) one. This is because dancers are complex consumers. They are loyal—they tend to stick to the brands and products they know and can be suspicious of change. Dancers are also notoriously last-minute ‘panic shoppers.’ We receive hundreds of e-mails from dancers with performances only days away who realize they don’t have the right tights or shoes. Smaller brands are not always readily accessible or widely known, so would need to overcome these hurdles.”
Smaller companies owned by individuals with a personal or ethical stake are continuing to innovate. Both Blendz, a company that offers jazz shoes in four tones, and Nude Barre, whose undergarments are available in 12 skin shades, are black-owned small businesses. Similarly, Cloud & Victory and Jule Dancewear seek to “reshape” dancewear for curves and all sizes. Half of Jule Dancewear’s business is wholesale, serving as a market barometer for the company, which is testing XL sizes. “We listen to what the market demands,” says Cinquemani. “Oftentimes we receive requests from our wholesalers for their clients for a larger size. Whether it’s for a group of dancers for school uniforms or a single dancer request, we are happy to be able to accommodate these requests.”
Still, as passionate and progressive as smaller brands like these may be, they may not always have the capacity to wholesale their goods and be readily available, as Ade points out. For owners of small stores, space to carry and stock a new variety of options may require both ingenuity and simply being more attuned to the options that most serve their community.
“I’d love to be able to provide a jazz shoe darker than tan for our customers, especially for cheer and dance teams,” says Bertucci. For the time being, retailers like her may just have to point customers to Blendz’s Chasse Dreams Slip-on Jazz Shoes, which come in Maven Mahogany, Confident Cocoa and Brazen Brown, in addition to Tenacious Tan, while they wait for a brand to begin to wholesale this type of shoe. While many questions remain in this new territory, one thing is clear: The dancewear and dance shoe markets are becoming democratized and expanding, and the companies imagining and innovating for this more inclusive future are moving as fast as they can.
Candice Thompson is a former dancer and dancewear designer who contributes regularly to Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher. She is currently the editorial director of DIYdancer.