Selecting Ballroom Dance Shoes
by Darrah Chavey
Do I Have to Have Dance Shoes?
Ballroom-Arkansas, in their “tips” section, once said: “No, it is not necessary to have dance shoes. But, the specially made shoes do make it easier to learn to dance. Most dance shoes have a strong, steel shank down the middle of the shoe to lend stability to the foot. The suede soles make it easier to spin, while also anchoring the foot when you need to stop or turn.
“Dance shoes should fit your foot like a glove -- a bit tighter than regular street shoes -- so the shoe can provide close support for your foot and so that the shoe doesn’t fly off your foot during quick moves.
“You shouldn’t wear your dance shoes anywhere except on the dance floor -- this will prevent the suede soles from becoming soiled. And, avoid wet floors at all times! Take care of your dance shoes by brushing the suede soles regularly between lessons and dances.”
Some dance floors, such as where our class is held, are on the slippery side, so you want a shoe that has some grip to it. (Avoid hard plastic soles!) Other dance floors, such as where we have our open dances, are a little stickier, so your shoe can’t have too much grip. (Avoid tennis shoes & athletic shoes!) Some serious dancers own two different sets of dance shoes to use on different types of dance floors, but for most of us it’s better to just get one good pair.
What to Look For:
Soles: The soles of your shoes may be the most important feature. If the soles grip the floor too much, you can strain or twist your ankles, or knees, when trying to do turns or spins. If the soles have no grip, and slide too easily on the floor, you will be constantly fighting the floor on direction changes, slipping enough to strain your leg muscles, or even slipping enough to fall. Our recommendations, in preference order, are:
Avoid soft rubber, i.e., anything where you can press your thumb into it and it gives, even a little. Soles like this grip too much and risk doing serious damage to your knees when you’re dancing. (This includes almost all sneakers, running shoes, athletic shoes, etc.) Avoid soles with a heavy texture, such as bumps, rows of ridges, or anything that looks like a tire tread (even a well-worn tire tread). A good test is to stand on a hard floor with your weight on the front of one foot, heel off the ground. Swing your other leg around you, and see how far you spin. If your spin stops before you make a half to full rotation, or if the spin feels like you’re putting torque on your knees, the soles are too sticky. (Imagine doing that spin 100 times during an evening. Will your knees be able to survive it?)
Avoid the plastic/hard rubber “imitation leather” soles unless they have good tread on them; these can be too slippery. A test here is to take one or two running steps on a hard floor (tile, concrete, or wood), then stop. Did you slide? If so, you may have trouble with moves that take a strong step in one direction, stop and go the other way. On the other hand, slippery shoes like these can be ideal if you have to dance on short-nap carpeting. Some serious dancers like to bring along two different pairs of shoes -- one for a standard floor, and one for a sticky floor. Short-nap carpeting can actually be great to dance on (they are cushioned) except that regular shoes “stick” to them, and women’s heels sometimes get “caught” in them. So to dance on carpet, get shoes with hard smooth “slippery” soles and (for women) wide heels that won’t catch.
Men’s Shoes: At this level of
dance, there aren’t a lot of issues you need to worry about other
than the soles of the shoes. One thing to check is their flexibility,
especially how easy it is to flex the toes, e.g., for standing on
your toes (as we do for some dance moves). Many shoes for men are
very stiff. The way to test this is to try to bend the toe of the
shoe up. It doesn’t even matter if there are “soft leather”
uppers -- if the base and sole of the shoe is stiff -- they will be
hard to dance in, at least for certain moves.
Women’s Shoes: There are several additional considerations for women. Avoid slip-ons or any shoe that comes off too easily. You can wear a “closed” shoe, or a more “open” shoe such as the Capezio Latin Sandal or XStrap Pump. Good open shoes have straps that keep the shoe firmly fixed to the foot. Shoes with open toes, such as the Capezio XStrap, can put extra pressure on the sides of your feet (e.g., leading to blisters) if you don’t have them fit properly. If they fit well, this isn’t a problem.
Open Heels: To ensure that you don’t step off the heel while dancing, you usually want a full shoe around the heel. You can use an open heel, such as Showtime’s “Nadia," if the straps keep your heel firmly set on the heel of the shoe. Certain kinds of “dressy” shoes rely on such straps, but they’re not secure enough to prevent your foot from stepping off the heel on quick turns. In many cases, they’re really not made for the twists and torque that we put on them while dancing, and can break in the middle of a dance! This is especially true of the cheaper shoes of this style, and seems common in shoes sold at “general” stores with a shoe department (e.g., Wal-Mart or Shopko).
Heel Height: For “official” ballroom dancing, women wear 3" heels for the European dances, and 2" heels for the Latin dances. Heels can help in getting the stretch that we want in the European dances, and to be up on the toes for the turns and spins we do in all forms of ballroom. We recommend that women do not wear heels substantially higher than what they are used to. If you almost never wear shoes with heels, look for a 1" to 1-1/ 2" heel. Never buy anything more than 1/2" higher than heels you’ve previously worn—the dance floor is not the place to be learning how to walk in high heels!
Character Shoes, Ballet Shoes, etc:
You can use character shoes for ballroom dance, e.g., if you already
own a pair. Ballet shoes don’t get you dancing on your toes the way
that heels do, but if you already own ballet shoes, you probably
already know how to dance on your toes! We’ve even known people who
swore by their Chinese flats. The critical thing here is the test for
the soles: Not too sticky; not too slippery. Heels help (especially
for shorter women), but how much they help varies from dancer to
Buying Off the Web:
We have had very good experiences purchasing dance shoes off the Web. We have bought from Celebrity, Back Bay Dancewear, and Capezio, and can recommend them all. We believe, based on recommendations from other dancers, that the other sites listed here will also prove to be good online sources for dance shoes. We tend to use the Web sites to research the shoes that we want, and then call in the order by phone. That way you don’t have to worry about security of credit card numbers and can ask them questions about fit and delivery time. Most mail-order shoe companies allow you to return shoes that haven’t been worn. They determine this by the condition of the soles. So when your shoes arrive, try them on and, on clean carpet, walk around in them for a bit to see if they fit right.
Reasonably Priced Shoes: Places to purchase good dance shoes at reasonably affordable prices (e.g., under $60):
Capezio: Best known for their ballet, jazz, and tap shoes, they also have a good line of shoes that work well for ballroom dancing. Capezio shoes are also affordable -- it’s easy to find good shoes in the $30-60 range.
Glide Dance Shoes: This company comes strongly recommended by several dancers I know. They have good, comfortable dance shoes at reasonable prices. They will custom make shoes for you, e.g., with whatever sole, heel, and upper style you want. They also have excellent service and return policies, with prices generally in the $50-90 range. One dance teacher reported that they mailed her four different sizes of shoes so she could see which fit her the best! Another teacher noted that their shoes were more comfortable than the “professional” shoes he ordered from England.
Professional Dance Shoes: The links below are to a couple of stores and brands that specialize in "official" ballroom dance shoes. Generally, these are pretty pricey ($100-150 per pair at the low end), but you can often get really good shoes here.
StepnOut: This is an online ballroom shoe store whose physical address is just north of Madison, Wisconsin. They sell only Celebrity brand shoes, but they carry a wide variety of these shoes (starting prices: $118 for men’s shoes; $108 for women’s shoes). Celebrity shoes have the advantage of having more cushioning than most ballroom shoes; at least, one of my dance teachers swears by them and will buy nothing else. Celebrity Dance Shoes has close-out sales listed on their Web site (go to the site, then “Specials”). The women’s shoes tend to have 2-1/2" heels, and their Web site has a 1-800 number to call for a complete listing of shoes in your size. These specials are generally half-price or less.
Champion Dance Shoes: A standard competitive ballroom model.
Showtime Dance Shoes: They sell “SupaDance” shoes, the top-of-the-line ballroom dance shoe, as well as various other lines of shoes. SupaDance is an English company, but since Showtime is located in Georgia, I suspect shipping to U.S. addresses is both cheaper and faster from there than from England.
Problem Sizes? There are a couple of stores that specialize in problem sizes and fits, e.g., extra narrow to extra wide, or feet of two different sizes. One company that does this with professional dance shoes is Toe to Toe Dance Shoes. They also have shoes with extra cushioning. Their prices on shoes are the standard $100 +, but they have particularly good prices on a lot of accessories, such as shoe bags, shoe brushes, and other accessories. Glide Dance Shoes (listed earlier) also has a good reputation for handling odd-size shoes.
Making Your Own Dance Shoes:
It’s possible to create your own dance shoes by taking split-leather soles and glueing them to the bottoms of regular shoes; even older sneakers or walking shoes. (It’s best to do this with shoes that don’t have too much tread on them, since otherwise the leather will have too many places where it’s not in contact with the original shoe bottom.) You can do this by taking your shoes to a regular shoe-maker, by ordering split-leather soles from one of the dance shoe companies (e.g., Glide Shoes sells these), or by getting some split-leather elsewhere and then glueing the soles directly to your shoes. You can also take your shoes to a local cobbler.
To keep your dance shoes in good condition, you should use a shoe brush to clean off the soles and do
your best to never wear your dance shoes outdoors. Make sure your shoes never get wet! If you go too long without cleaning the soles of your shoes, they can be nearly impossible to get back to good condition. Shoes with dirty soles, even dirty leather soles, can become very slippery.
It can be quite useful to have a shoe bag to carry your dance shoes to a dance; that helps encourage you not to just wear your dance shoes to the dance. If you’re serious about dancing, you might want to buy a shoe bag that carries two pairs of shoes for different types of dance floors (as mentioned earlier).
Places mentioned above that sell shoe accessories (brushes, bags, etc.) at reasonable prices include Glide Shoes and Toe to Toe Dance Shoes.
From an article published in ROUNDALAB Journal, Spring 2011. Darrah Chavey is with Beloit College, Dept. of Math & Computer Science, and Professor for Dance 109 (Ballroom Dance). "I appreciate the help of members of the Weaver’s round dance mailing list, and especially Tim Eum, for helpful suggestions." Reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, April 2013.