This is the first article in our 5-part Ultimate Dance Shoe Buying Guide! Next week we`ll focus on men`s shoes (much less talk of heel height and strappy sandals), so gents, please don`t feel left out! We`ll also give you a handy checklist you can take with you when you go shoe shopping, talk about dance accessories, and post reviews of all the dance shoe stores in and around Ottawa. Got a shoe question that our articles don’t answer? Leave it in a comment!
Ladies, let’s face it: one of the greatest things about being a dancer is being able to effectively double your shoe collection, and unapologetically wear shiny, rhinestone-embellished shoes that might otherwise be reserved for very special occasions. However, besides being oh-so-pretty, dance shoes are an important tool that can enhance your dancing. Whether you’re getting your first pair of dance shoes or looking to add a few new styles to your collection, knowing what to look for in dance shoes can make the difference between dancing gracefully for hours and suffering the misery of foot ache.
Why do we need special dance shoes?
Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re purely practical beings not swayed by amazing heels and the sheen of satin. Dance shoes have some very practical benefits for your dancing form, for how stable and secure your feel, and for the health of your feet and knees. Here’s why:
- Dance shoes are much lighter than regular shoes. The upper is often made of fabric or thin leather, and the sole is slim and light. Dance shoes typically weigh about a third as much as regular shoes, which means you’ll feel much lighter on your feet, making quick steps and intricate footwork much easier.
- Dance shoes fit close to your foot, and good ones feel like a natural extension of your foot. Good heels are perfectly balanced, so you never fear that you’ll slip off of them.
- Dance shoes have suede soles. Suede provides an optimal mix of slip and grip on typical dance floors, letting you pivot and spin easily, yet also allowing you to stop securely. Because salsa and other Latin dances involve much turning and spinning for ladies, we highly recommend that you invest in good dance shoes with suede soles. Rubber or plastic soles can make turning and/or stopping difficult and can put a lot of pressure on your knees and ankles, putting you at risk of injuries.
- Good quality dance shoes have a steel shank running through the heel and the sole, ending behind the ball of your foot. This shank provides strong structure to the shoe, and good support for your foot. Steel-shank shoes will not soften or sag in the sole, their heels will not break off, and they will not lose arch support over time.
The most popular kinds of dance shoes for ladies are undoubtedly the heeled Ballroom/Latin/Tango styles, so the bulk of our discussion will be on this topic, though the heel-averse will find some great options in the next section.
Most shoes in these styles will have the shared elements mentioned in the previous section: very light weight, fitting closely and securely to the foot, with suede soles and a steel shank through the sole. Note: to check whether a shoe has a steel shank, grasp the heel cup in one hand, and the toe of the shoe in the other. Try to bend the shoe downward, toward the heel. If the shoe bends close to the heel, there is no shank. If the toe part of the shoe folds, but the middle of the shoe does not, there is a shank.
Let’s talk about the different elements of the shoe: the heel, the toe, and the straps.
Heels come in different heights, types and styles:
- Height: you can get dance shoes with heels ranging from 1” or 1.5” (Cuban heels), and up to 3.5”. Some manufacturers make even higher heels (4”+) but these are fairly uncommon. The height you should choose depends on your comfort level, your height, and the shape of your feet. Generally, go for lower heels to start out, then you can try higher styles as you become more comfortable. 2”, 2.5” and 3” heels tend to be the most popular choices. Tip: the same style of shoe typically comes in several heel heights. If you love a style, but the heel is not your ideal height, ask the sales associate if they carry different heel heights in the same style.
- Ballroom, Latin or Tango heels: this refers to how slanted (or undercut) the heel is, in relation to the end of the shoe. Ballroom heels tend to be quite straight, whereas Latin heels are slightly undercut, and Tango heels are even more undercut. The more undercut a heel is, the farther forward your stance. This is great for dances like Argentine Tango, where partners lean into each other, but it is not necessary for salsa. We generally recommend Ballroom or Latin heels.
- Slim, flared or chunky heels: some styles come in slim, pointy, stiletto-like heels, while other heels are relatively slim in the middle and flare out at the bottom; still others have thicker, chunky heels. Thick heels and flared heels tend to be the most stable and more comfortable for long periods of dancing. However, well-made dance shoes will balance their heels so that even the pointy ones are stable and comfortable. In the end, it comes down to personal preference.
For the toe style of your shoe, you can opt for closed toe or open toe. (Some of us would like steel-reinforced toe, but it’s not offered.) While some pump styles are popular, most dancers prefer open toe shoes, because they tend to show off foot movement and points better. A few words on open-toe styles:
- Strappy styles look great, but thin straps spell foot pain for many of us. Wider straps, or thin straps joined by mesh, will be kinder to your toes.
- If you have narrow or wide feet, adjustable shoes are a good bet: one or two buckled straps tighten or loosen to fit your foot.
The final element to consider in the shape of a shoe are the straps securing your shoe to your foot. You can get pumps as well as a few open-toe styles without straps securing the heel to the top of your foot, however we highly recommend getting shoes that you cannot kick off, with at least one strap going from the heel cage around your ankle. You can also get T-straps (secure around your ankle and to the toe part of the shoe), X-straps (attach at your heel cup and loop under the middle of your foot, crossing at the ankle) and many other styles. Try a few, and go for what feels most secure and most comfortable.
Low-heel and no-heel alternatives
If the thought of dancing in high heels brings you more terror than anticipation, below are a few styles you can explore:
- Some ballroom and Latin shoes come in low heels (1” to 2”). These styles are especially popular for Swing and West Coast Swing dancers, as well as some Latin dancers. Most dance stores should carry some of these styles. Even if they are not displayed, ask the sales person if they carry any of their styles in low heels or Cuban heels.
- Ballroom practice shoes are designed to have the same support as regular ballroom shoes, but with a lower heel. These are typically closed, lace-up shoes with mesh uppers, and a chunky 1.5”-2” heel.
- Ballet and jazz shoes are also a popular alternative. Jazz shoes and ballet shoes come with full soles or split soles, and with suede soles or plastic or rubber soles. While these shoes are very flexible and allow for free foot movement, they unfortunately offer very little foot support. If this is your footwear preference, we recommend choosing a style with suede soles.
- Ballo shoes, designed by a Montreal company, founded by salsa dancers, are unisex shoes with thin wedge soles. They also come in a variety of styles and colours, and have a casual, sporty look (think Puma for dancers). They tend to look more like sneakers than dance shoes, so if you’re looking for a feminine style, this is not it.
- Jinga shoes are light and flexible dance and Capoeira shoes with thin plastic soles that are great for spinning on dance floors, but can also be worn outside. They have ladies’ designs as well as some unisex options; they are also eco-friendly and come in many fun colours.
- Dance sneakers are also unisex. Unlike other styles, they do not have suede soles; instead, they are fitted with a special plastic sole which does not mark wooden floors and allows some degree of slip to make turns easier (though not as easy as with suede soles). Some dancers prefer them because they look, fit and feel like sneakers. Most have a split sole, which offers less support but more flexibility than a full sole.
Where to buy dance shoes
Ballroom shoes, jazz shoes and dance sneakers can be found at any dance supply store, such as Brio, Malabar and DanceMasters. (A review of local shoe stores will up coming soon!) Some stores also carry practice shoes, although these are relatively rare in Ottawa.
Ballo shoes are distributed in the Ottawa-Gatineau region by GoSalsa. You can buy them at their studio in Gatineau, at their parties, or at Salsaria, where they often have a stand set up. Be aware that they do not keep stock on hand, and you will likely have to order your pair and wait 1-2 weeks to receive it. You can also order Ballo shoes online.
While most dance shoe manufacturers use standard US or European sizing, some have their own size standards. For instance, Ballo shoes, which are unisex, have their own sizing; for women, this tends to be 3 sizes below your regular shoe size – so if you wear US size 8 shoes normally, your Ballo size will likely be 5.
If you are buying your shoes in a store or at a booth at a salsa event, tell the sales associate your regular shoe size, and they should take care of the rest. If you are buying dance shoes online, make sure to consult a size chart and check return and exchange policies before ordering.
Ballet slippers, Jazz shoes and dance sneakers tend to be the most affordable, ranging from $30 to $80. Typically, the less structured the shoe, the less it will cost. However, more affordable shoes also tend to have a much shorter life and wear out quickly.
Jinga shoes are sold of $99 online, but they sometimes have sales and usually offer discounts at salsa congresses.
Ballroom and Ballo shoes typically range from $80 to $150, with high-end ballroom shoes going for $150 to $200. A good pair of dance shoes can last for years, and gets better with use, since it moulds and conforms to the shape of your foot
Do you have a question, or a tip about dance shoes to share? Leave a comment below!