13: Why do Dancers Wear Special Shoes?
This is not something seasoned dancers need to be told, it is a subject particularly for newcomers to ballroom dancing – or those who might be thinking about getting involved.
The reasons we have special shoes are the same reasons that golfers, footballers, bowls players, runners (and just about any other physical activity) have special shoes: (1) to provide the necessary foot support, flexibility, and amount of grip; and (2) to protect the ground/floor/surface on which your activity takes place. You would not be allowed onto a bowling green or golf course without the correct footwear, and you would be foolish to go running in workmen’s boots, so why wouldn’t we apply the same considerations to dancing?
The first “no no” is walking onto a ballroom floor (even across it when you first come in) and treading dirt and grit onto it from outside*. Those of us with proper shoes will be able to feel that grit, and potentially slip on it (as could you). Therefore, the first thing we do is change our shoes – and we reserve our dancing shoes exclusively for the ballroom. Another danger to the dance floor are stillettos.
* Or walk across a dance floor with your drinks, dripping and risking spills. Go around!!!
Secondly, ordinary outdoor shoes (particularly men’s) are for protection against knocks and weather, and therefore stiff and heavy. There shouldn’t be any weather on a dance floor, and dancing movement requires lightness and flexibility (not stiffness and weight). Neither would you want the misfortune of kicking your lady with heavy shoes! Ladies’ ordinary heeled shoes are often very stiff to retain their shape, and the heels are only so strong as is needed for casual walking, whereas a pair of dancing “heels” allow for the ball of the foot (the joint of the big toe) to flex, provide essential support at the heel and ankle, and the construction of the heel itself is designed for the stress of dancing (I have seen too many casual heels pushed out of shape by dancing – accidents in waiting).
But possibly the most important reason is the benefit you get from having the appropriate contact with the floor. Dancers propel themselves across the floor by their contact with it. If the contact is too slippery, you cannot accelerate, turn, and brake... but if the contact is too grippy, you cannot easily turn on the foot (see also here). Ballroom floors, and the appropriate shoes, have evolved to provide that consistent “just right” amount of grip – the best ballroom floor is unvarnished (but very smooth) wood (maple), and the best shoes for dancing on it have a chamois sole.
To go dancing in ordinary outdoor shoes risks injury
from slips, crocked ankles, or twisted knees, and is disrespectful to
your partner and to your dance companions... but I have to admit, like
so many others, that is how I started out. Is it cissy to
have special dancing shoes? It might have been once – but Strictly has helped
with that, and it should be no more cissy than having golf
shoes. Is it expensive? No more expensive than
saving a pair of normal shoes especially for dancing (which is what I
ended up doing, before I saw the light). If you have only
ever danced in “ordinary”
shoes, you are in for a revelation: proper dancing shoes make dancing so
Ballroom v. Latin v. Social
For the men, unless you are an elite dancer (ie professional or competition), there is little need to have separate shoes for Modern Ballroom and Latin-American. The main difference is that a men’s Latin shoe has an elevated (“Cuban”) heel, which throws the weight forward into the appropriate stance for Latin. Social dancers could consider shoes with a Cuban heel if they need a little extra height to match their partner, or use heel lifts in their shoes.
Women’s shoes are a whole different ball game, because of the different technique between Ballroom and Latin, the high heel, and the desire for shoes to be “pretty”.
For Modern Ballroom, the lady must roll across the heel on forward steps (necessitating a very strong construction in the heel, and support for the ankle), trail her toe across the floor on backward steps (requiring protection by the shoe’s upper), and traditionally be a court shoe. Any kind of strap on a ladies’ Ballroom shoe used to be frowned upon, but is now increasingly common (the greater athletics of the current standard of competitive ballroom dancing makes it difficult to keep an unstrapped court shoe in place). The strap is often diagonal for aesthetics.
Latin-American sandals are traditionally strappy, open-toed to allow for lots of movement, flexible in the toe and ball of foot, while being very secure at the ankle to keep the heel of the shoe directly in line with the heel of the dancer’s foot. The muscles in the foot are used in a completely different way between Ballroom and Latin, and the shoe has to allow for that.
Keen dancers and competitors change their shoes between Ballroom and Latin, even for practising, because of these contradictory needs. Somebody (a lady dancer who ought to have known better) told me she saw no need for other lady dancers to change shoes for Latin, her own footwork was fine without – and that, I am sorry to say, is a case of over-estimating her own grade!
However, these considerations are less applicable to purely social dancers. Generally there is less distinction between Modern Ballroom and Latin-American – chances are they will dance both, without the refined technique of an elite dancer, and not change their shoes between... so require a more “all purpose” dance shoe. For men, as noted above, that’s not a problem – either Ballroom or a Cuban-heeled Latin shoe will do, and a few choose jazz or stage shoes with contrasting panels (to look snazzy, I suppose, but ensure the sole is chamois or similar).
Ladies’ social dance shoes are a compromise between Ballroom and Latin – typically still open-toed, but much less “strappy” than a Latin sandal, and with a strap of some kind (typically T-bar) to be more secure than a court shoe would be for Latin. They come in many heel heights and shapes, to suit the partnership or to provide extra stability if required.
There are many styles of strapping, and different styles suit different dancers feet. For example: if you suffer from puffy ankles, a straight ankle strap might not be best for you because it could cut in where the pressure is applied. You could consider a T-bar, or a low or high cross strap, either of which can help relocate the pressure of the strap to the bony areas of the foot and lower leg. Whatever, the shoe must be secure to be safe. Speaking with a friend who runs a dance shoe shop, he said all too often the ladies just choose shoes for how pretty they are, not their suitability!
With regard to colour, on the competition floor it is the current fashion for ladies to have flesh-coloured shoes rather than what used to be done: shoes dyed to match the dress. One reason is to not need multiple pairs of shoes; another is to disguise (rather than emphasise) any ugliness of a misplaced foot. That said, when it comes to social shoes, the lady is likely to choose a colour or combination which blends with the maximum number of outfits.
A factor which needs to be considered, particularly by dancers in the older age groups, are bunions. This applies to men and ladies, but typically all the men can do is get the widest possible fitting. The ladies need to choose a shoe style which will be comfortable on the bunion – you might like to look at Supadance style 1028. Incidentally, it is worth noting that you (ladies and men) will generally be able to come down half a shoe size or more if the width is sufficient, and that in itself is a benefit to your dancing. (For example: I’m a 9 in ordinary shoes, but 8½ WW for dancing.)
Finally, a word about the heel tips on ladies’ dance shoes. Unless you are extremely well balanced, it is inevitable that the tips will wear unevenly, creating a bevel which then leads to instability. Due to the narrowness of the heel, this can happen very quickly, even from new, and frequent trips to the cobbler for replacements are in order. When you do, make sure to get a heel composition which provides some grip (not too much) on the floor rather than skating away... but a grippy composition will wear faster than a hard slippy one. Wear them down far enough, and the nail will start to protrude (very bad for you and for the floor!).
Top quality dance shoes sometimes come with chamois on the heels as well (standard on men’s shoes, less common on ladies’, to provide the right amount of slip and grip), and that helps protect the heel tip compound from wear. Some manufacturers, notably Supadance, can supply “heel tip protectors” (with or without a layer of chamois), which are a synthetic rubber cap that is properly shaped to fit closely over the heel for that specific design of shoe (make sure that if you have the Supadance “slim” heel you get the “slim” protectors, “contour” protectors for the “contour” heel, etc). Fit the protector over a new (unworn) heel, and it is the easily-replaced protector that takes the wear instead of needing to re-heel each time (warm them up to make them easier to fit). If you feel protectors would be useful, be sure to choose shoes for which protectors are obtainable – your local dance shoe shop should be able to advise.