Until last year, dancers with darker skin tones had to paint their nude-coloured ballet shoes with makeup before going on stage. The practice is called pancaking and has long been an accepted norm in the industry, particularly for dancers of colour. Until Eric Underwood came along. "I had never thought anything about it," says the 33-year-old, who recently quit as a soloist of the Royal Ballet after 11 successful years. "I would go and get Mac NW54 and paint the shoe down until it matched my foot, and then do my performance. You just hope it's not visible, but it's quite messy."
Then, on tour in Italy in 2015, he ran out of foundation and couldn't get hold of any in time for his next show. An impassioned Instagram video plea for ballet flats to be made to match a broader spectrum of skin tones was seen by Bloch, market leader in ballet shoes, and its "Eric Tan" shade is one of a new selection that the dancer himself helped develop.
It is this drive to break free from traditional constraints, alongside his undeniable talent, that means Underwood is unlikely to be forgotten, despite his decision to leave the Royal Ballet. "I haven't retired," he says. "But I've moved on. I've enjoyed my time at the Royal Ballet but I've always had other desires, and you need the time to pursue those. Even as a child, I always said that I don't want to be a person who finishes my career as a dancer and that's my identity — that I was a dancer."
His newfound freedom is reflected when he meets Esquire at London's Mandarin Oriental hotel, fresh from only his second session with the hotel's in-house strength and conditioning coach. "We're building me a chest!" Underwood says. "I've never done the gym for making muscle. So this is really different. Maybe it's a little bit arrogant but I look in the mirror and go, 'I'm super strong', and then you get there and you go, 'Actually… I'm not!' The bench press is oddly difficult for me."
Actually, arrogant is one of the last words you'd use about Underwood. A gleeful laugh finishes most of his sentences, scrunching up his impressively chiselled features. And while he has the kind of old-school glamour one imagines a leading ballet dancer should have, there is no grandeur or hauteur: he seems entirely relaxed.
Underwood grew up in Washington DC. "There were rough circumstances around — gunshots, gang activity, really awful things that happen in urban environments — but those things didn't happen in my house." Unlike most of his colleagues, who began training almost as soon as they could walk, he "was playing in the dirt with other children", totally oblivious to ballet. In the evenings, the family would push back the furniture, turn up the music and dance together, freestyle.
At 14, hoping to avoid the local high school, Underwood's mother prepped him for an acting audition at the Suitland High School Center for Visual and Performing Arts. He flunked it, but what happened next changed his life. "I'm walking out towards the car thinking, 'Oh my God, my mother is going to freak out!' And I see some girls stretching before their dance audition. I thought, 'OK, just go in with them.' And I went in — wearing jeans shorts and a T-shirt. I had to do something."
Since ballet instructions are in French, Underwood had no idea what the teacher was saying, but he somehow caught her attention. "She was like, 'You've got it genetically but you're really far behind. This isn't going to work.' But I was the only boy so she gave me a chance."
A few months later, still only 14, Underwood won a merit scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York, moving there alone to study. On graduating, he stayed in New York spending 18 months with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and three years with the American Ballet Theatre. After a guest appearance with the Royal Ballet he rang its then director, Monica Mason, to ask for a job. Despite no contracts officially being available, she invited him to take a class with the company. He immediately flew over to London, whereupon a contract was offered the next day.
As a dancer, he will forever be known as the undulating, hookah-puffing caterpillar in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which utilised his characteristically supple style and powerful stage persona. These traits also enabled him to work closely with other contemporary choreographers, many of whom created roles specifically for him, most notably in Wayne McGregor's Chroma, a ballet that is now part of the international repertory.
"I heard from a friend of mine who dances in the Mariinsky [Theatre] that when they rehearse it, someone's learning 'Eric's role'," Underwood says. "So the fact that a Russian company is now learning a role that I created is really like, 'Oh wow, that'll be there forever.'"
Outside ballet, Underwood has modelled extensively, including on the cover of Italian Vogue alongside his friend Kate Moss. Added to his prominent torso tattoos and well-publicised love of a night on the town (Underwood is a sought-after guest at fashion and showbiz parties), it all gives him an appealing air of rock'n'roll, another reason why he has been able to sidle outside ballet circles.
He now works to introduce other young people from underprivileged backgrounds to the art form. "The physicality of it is exciting for children," he says. "Can anyone jump higher than me? Can anyone run faster than me? How many times can you spin? If you just show someone twinkling around it's not exciting."
He also hopes to write about his experiences and thinks that "to reach people that aren't middle or upper class, you need commercial accessibility. A television show that made ballet accessible and not elitist would be hugely beneficial."
He's driven, he says, by the knowledge that while his story is extraordinary, it needn't be in the future. "I don't think I'm a superhero," he says, "I just happened to get lucky. There are more people like me, in some difficult backgrounds, that don't know about ballet. And you can't enjoy or appreciate something you don't know about."