My post on “mature” dancer fashion sparked my inspiration to write more on the topic… I actually did a post previously on my favorite (and not-so-favorite) tights. I focused on pink tights, although I may revisit the topic some day to talk about other dance tights I’ve had experience with (black tights, body tights, and — yes — fishnet!).
Today, though, I’m going to talk about shoes!!!
Specifically, the types of shoes I own. Which, come to think of it, is a surprisingly large range. Hope you enjoy and maybe this will answer some questions you had about various dance footwear, but were afraid to ask!
Worn for: Character dance (go figure). What is character dance, you ask? I haven’t a clue, but from what I can tell most classical ballet pre-pro programs require it as part of their curriculum (RAD even has exams on it). It’s based on traditional and/or national dances and you see it integrated into story ballets, especially.
Character shoes will also be seen in a variety of other settings. Musical theater. You may see them in ballroom classes (I suspect), though probably never in ballroom competition. Taps can also be added to the bottom for — get this — tap dancing! That was my first experience with them.
What’s so great about ‘em: Character shoes have a very classic, clean look. They are probably the most comfortable heels I’ve ever worn. The heel is fairly chunky and centered nicely under the calcaneus (that’s the heel bone, in case you were curious) making them easy to dance in… at least when compared to your average stiletto or pump! The toe box is usually roomy enough to allow for some wiggle room and the buckle strap allows you to adjust the fit somewhat. They are rather light and quiet (as long as you don’t have taps on them!). The sole is leather and slippery enough for doing turns and quick movements, but not so slippery to be dangerous! They’re also non-marking, so can be worn on marley floors without causing any major damage.
When NOT to wear them: [Note: You're going to see a theme in this section!] Outside. It’s kind of tempting. Honestly… I’ve done it with classic/retro styles. But they don’t have great insoles, for one thing, and standing around in them for long periods of time gets tiring. Plus pavement and the like will do a number on the soles very quickly. Not to mention, you don’t want to track street dirt into a studio or onto the stage. You’re better off finding some street shoes with a similar style.
Variations: These shoes usually come in black or tan (mmm… Guinness and Harp… no, wait, not that kind of black and tan!). Heel height varies on these and I advise sticking to the standard 2″. You can get them as high as 3″ but unless you’re dancing with a partner who’s much taller than you and need the extra lift I don’t think they’re necessary. If you’re not used to wearing heels, they also come a little lower in the 1.5″ range. You really can’t tell the difference from the audience, so if you prefer a lower height (or are dancing with a shorter partner) no biggie to go shorter. T-strap shoes are a fun variation on these (and, as you can see, what I went for!), but they do have a sexier look, so they’re not appropriate for every setting, e.g., Nutcracker party mom. Unless you want to look like the party mom that all the party dads are leering at and the other party moms are hissing about behind their glasses of wine, keep your T-straps at home and stick to the traditional style. And no, I didn’t get mine to be a party mom… mine were from some burlesque shows I was in. Ahem. Moving right along… RAD has its own character shoe style (which, no offense, is really freakin’ hideous!).
Worn for: Hip hop, breaking, some jazz, Zumba and other dance-inspired workouts. Some dance teachers will wear them for the added support they provide during a long day in the studios.
What’s so great about ‘em: There are many varieties of dance sneakers depending on what you want to do with them. The Bloch Boost above is an example of what I’ll refer to as a typical dance sneaker. As you can see the area at the ball and heel are very sneaker-y, but the middle is split. This allows the dancer to work through the feet more than a standard tennis shoe would allow. This shoe also happens to have a bit of a platform at the toe. While this isn’t essential it can come in handy for things like toe pops and the like. Many of these shoes have so-called “spin spots” which are supposed to facilitate turning. I haven’t found they do much, but in general the material the sole is made out of is smooth enough for turns, but is still a rubber-ish material to give a bit of stick when you need it.
When NOT to wear them: Outside. Usually. Depending. If you’re wearing these for a Zumba class that’s taught at a gym, you could probably get away with it. I’ve had to wear mine outside for some random gigs I’ve been involved in. Just be sure to thoroughly clean the bottoms before wearing them in a studio setting. Also, do not wear these on light-colored marley floors. They will make dark marks (even if they say they won’t). And, uh… don’t wear these for regular shoes. Because they’re kinda dippy looking. Just sayin’.
Variations: I mentioned that the advantages I was referring to were largely for the “typical” dance sneaker but you will find a fair number of shoes marketed as dance sneakers that look a lot like a traditional tennis shoe. My Bloch Klassiks (no longer made) above are an example. These are meant to integrate some of the dance aspects into a more traditional-looking shoe. The sole on these is much more rigid since it doesn’t have the split, but it does have a “spin spot” on the sole at the ball of the foot (does damned near nothing, FYI), and this pair also had an interesting feature of clips that snapped onto the back of the shoe that you could tuck pant cuffs into. They didn’t work spectacularly well, but it was a nice thought.
There are also a fair number of, what I refer to as, “hybrid” dance sneakers… basically shoes that can’t decide whether to be a jazz shoe or a sneaker. A lot of them are more rigid and rubberized than a traditional jazz shoe, but more flexible and less bulky than a dance sneaker. I don’t really have any experience with those, so can’t tell you whether these are a great innovation or just a solution to a problem that no one actually has. Hm.
Worn for: JAZZ! But also, these are kind of like a standard, go-to shoe when you don’t know what to wear. As with dance sneakers, a lot of dance instructors will wear these for teaching.
What’s so great about ‘em: They are pretty comfortable and more supportive than, say, a ballet slipper, and the sole is often rubberized instead of suede giving a bit more traction. They have a bit of a heel cup providing some support for the back of the foot and the top of the shoe usually comes up to about the point where the ankle flexes. These encase the foot and are great for all sorts of dancing.
When NOT to wear them: Outside. Ha. Also… in ballet class. Or modern class. Or really anything that has its own explicit footwear. That is, unless you have a legit reason and clear it with the teacher. But don’t wear them to ballet on a whim. Also, don’t wear them on light-colored marley. The rubberized soles will mark the floors.
Variations: Like character shoes, the most common colors are black and tan, and usually the preferred color is studio dependent. Personally I hate the look of the tan ones, but no one asked my opinion, so that’s irrelevant.
There are two standard styles: lace-up oxford and slip-on. When I was a kid everyone had lace-up shoes, but those seem to have mostly gone the way of the dodo bird and I’m very much okay with that. The slip-on styles are sleeker and you don’t run the risk of the laces untying in the middle of your recital dance and flopping around. There are also jazz booties that come up over the ankle.
As with dance sneakers there are hybrid styles out there. Not only hybrids with sneakers, but also ballet and modern hybrids. I bought the Capezio Fizzion (above) which seemed to be a mash-up of ballet slipper, jazz shoe, and ghillie (I’ve actually had experience with real ghillies, but it was a looooong time ago). The sole was made up of four little sole patches that were like ballet slipper soles so were way too slippery to use for hip-hop. But they looked way too jazzy to wear for ballet. The box they came in listed 20-bazillion (okay, 3) different ways to tie the laces and loop the adjustable elastic straps, but none of them seemed to do much to make them fit any better or make them more useful. Plus, they had no heel lift. Meh. Basically, a bunch of gimmicks that ultimately didn’t work nearly as well as the standard slip-on jazz shoe. Which is what I replaced them with. They did make my arch look nice, though!
Worn for: Modern. Lyrical. Contemporary. Pretty much anything that could or should be done in bare feet.
What’s so great about ‘em: These are very minimalist shoes and come in a variety of shades. The skin-toned ones are designed to be barely noticeable from stage so they do not detract from the line of the dancer. Modern shoes are basically meant to protect the ball of the foot. They can help to facilitate turning and reduce callous formation if that’s your MO.
When NOT to wear them: Er… outside!!! Seriously, though, if you’re in a class with a hard-core barefoot-only kinda teacher, please respect their wishes and ditch the shoes unless you’ve got a really strong case for needing to protect the ball of your foot (I’m thinking open wound or something). For the most part, these aren’t a great option for ballet, either. They can do in a pinch, but they give no cushioning under the heel, so I’d avoid them in that setting.
Variations: There are about a million different styles. The ones with the cutesy, underwear-related names such as “Foot Undeez” or “Foot Thong” usually slip over the toes and have one elastic that goes between the big toe and second toe or elastics between each toe. If you’re squeamish about things between your toes these probably aren’t a good option for you! Others are more like the front half of a ballet slipper with elastics that loop behind the heel (like my Bloch Eclipse). These are more visible from stage than the foot undies, but provide a bit more protection for the toes. Personally I find these easier to turn in because they cover my big toe (which often is what keeps me from turning as well as I could in bare feet). There are also “toe socks” which are socks that only cover the ball of the foot. Good for spinning, but I’m not sure how much control you really have in them!
Many of the styles come in various shades to match your skin tone, but some do have rhinestones and bright colors, so depending on the purpose you can get some variety in your modern footwear.
Honestly? I am still a modern purist and after trying a few of these styles reassured myself that I’d much rather go barefoot.
Worn for: Ballet! You knew I wasn’t going to forget ballet, didn’t you?!
What’s so great about ‘em: Aside from the sheer fashion — I mean, hell, there’s a whole segment of women’s footwear devoted to the ballet flat! — ballet slippers offer a good balance of grip and slip. They are very basic shoes, designed to blend in with the tights and maintain a long clean line.
When NOT to wear them: Everyone together now — “Outside!!!”
Also — HOW not to wear them: [Alert! ranty, pet peeves time]
1. If you wear footed tights (or convertible tights over your feet) please for the love of all that is beautiful, match the slipper color to the tights. I’m sorry, the pink slipper over black tights thing really looks awful. Now, if you keep your tights above the ankle you can get away with different colors a bit better, but in general… matchy-match, please!
2. Tie the drawstring snugly and tuck it IN!!! NO bows! I know ballet flats have bows on them. Those are street shoes, apparently made by people who have never set foot in a ballet studio. Ballet slippers do not sport bows on top!
3. A lot of ballet slippers, especially those with criss-cross elastics, come with only the heel end pre-sewn. This allows the wearer to place the other end in the place that works best for them, hurrah. BUT! I inwardly groan when I see people sew the other end up near the front of the shoe, effectively making a big huge X across the foot. Ew! Ugly! Keep the instep end behind the side seam, please! JFGI if you don’t know where it should go! Similarly… just sew them, please?! I know sometimes you have to buy some last minute slippers and don’t have time to sew and you have no choice but to tie the two ends together and loop it around your foot. I mean… I guess you’re grown-ups and you can wear them that way if you want, but it really looks sloppy. It takes, like, 10 minutes to sew them up, tops. Just do it!
4. Forgive me slipper, for I have sinned… the holey slipper is a significant moment in a dancer’s life, especially a new dancer. When you discover you’ve worn a hole in the big toe of your slipper, that is visible progress right there! But please, don’t beleaguer the point(e)! Once you notice a hole forming, start planning to get a new pair into rotation. I don’t mind minor holeage, but great gaping caverns with the ratty edges that can be seen from across the room… I mean, c’mon, ugly. And they’re also probably majorly smelly by now, too. Treat yourself to a new pair and retire the old. And DEFINITELY don’t wear them on stage like that!!!
Variations: Colors – typically you’ve got your choice of pink, pink, or pink. Ha. No, there are some other options out there, usually white, black, or tan. You see I’ve got some red ones here… they started their life pink and were painted for a performance (and are now stiff as a board).
Then there’s the whole full-sole vs. split-sole thing. Don’t get too wrapped up in this unless you’ve got a teacher who has a strong preference. Some people think that the full sole is better for “strengthening the feet” of beginners. I think that’s a crock of hooey, but I also haven’t owned full-sole slippers since, like, the early ’90s, so maybe I just forgot. Personally I think full sole slippers are great for kids, but mostly just ugly on adults. That’s just me. Canvas vs leather. Another personal preference, though I’ll say that this is sometimes flooring- and weather-dependent. When the floor is sticky (think marley on a humid summer day) I prefer canvas, but when it’s cool and dry or if I’m dancing on a wood floor (rare these days, but still find them occasionally) leather is my choice. I own both.
As for other variations, there are all sorts of gimmicks that the manufacturers come up with to convince you they’ve got the best shoe out there. Bloch has that hideous elastosplit X thing… ugh. Others advertise that their sole patches make you balance better or cushion the heel better or that the shoe will make your feet look like bananas and whatnot. Ultimately I think it’s mostly marketing nonsense. Harumph! *folds arms* That’s not to say that different shoes aren’t better for different people, just to say that there’s no “best” shoe out there. You’ve got to find what feels comfortable for you and makes YOUR foot look beautiful and not get wrapped up in the marketing hype.
Worn for: Ballet… a very special kind of ballet. I’m not going to go on too much about this seeing as I’ve spent much of this blog whining about pointe shoes, but I couldn’t exclude them. Pointe is generally a female dance form, but not always, as evidenced by a few fellow bloggers (click on the Leotards and the Buns in Them link to the left to see what I mean) and the fact that there’s a whole dance company made up of male dancers en pointe called the Trocks. Pointe is becoming more common for men, but still predominantly female.
What’s so great about ‘em: Er… uh… after Nut rehearsals recently, I really have no idea. Kidding, kidding. They allow ballerinas to look even more ethereal and weightless and extend the line of the leg that much more. And it’s so out of the realm of normal activity that it seems even cooler. I mean, who would think of dancing on the tips of one’s toes? It’s bizarre and crazy and yet altogether lovely (when done right… how many more weeks ’til our performance? ack!).
When NOT to wear them: OUTSIDE!!! Okay, okay, I know that the Ballerina Project is all about shots of ballerinas dancing in unexpected places, so for art purposes, I guess it’s alright. I guess. I’ll just say that if you do that, wear pointe shoes that you’re no longer dancing in (obviously)… BUT not totally dead, because you don’t want pictures all knuckled over. And try to get someone who knows something about ballet to take them or at least supervise the process because they’ll be able to give feedback on your lines and such. I hate to discourage artistic expression, but I’m not the world’s biggest fan of this trend. Some of the pictures are really cool, but so many end up looking, just… goofy. I’m sorry! I’m a big meanie, I know, I know. Do what you want, my opinion matters not. I just had to get it out there.
Where was I? Oh yeah, when not to wear pointe shoes… do not, no matter how tempted, wear pointe shoes if you do not know what “rond de jambe” or “developpé” or “fondu” means (hint: that last one does not involve melted cheese or melted chocolate). I feel like this should be obvious, but I’ve seen students show up to class who obviously have never taken ballet, but they have pointe shoe, will travel! Um… no. The whole thing about needing to put in time to learn technique? That’s not some sort of mean ballerina “I climbed uphill in 6′ of snow both ways to get to school” thing. It’s essential!
And, yeah, I don’t think I need to tell adults this, but judging from the number of frightening YouTube videos I’ve stumbled across, do not wear your shoes (or your friends’ shoes) to practice pointe in your shag-carpeted bedroom. Srsly. I know it’s a total buzz-kill, but you know what else is a buzz-kill? A sprained ankle.
General shoe advice
To add to (or reiterate) the advice from my fashion for the mature dancer post: shoes are best bought in a place where you can be fitted in person, preferably by someone who knows what s/he’s talking about. A lot of studios actually sell merchandise themselves, so that can be a great place to start, though the selection can be limited and prices high. Obviously, your local dance store is another good option, but the quality of these can run the gamut. Some fitters are brilliant and others haven’t a clue and sometimes they are all employed at the same place. Some stores have great variety and others seem to sell one kind of shoe. It can feel a bit like a game of roulette.
My advice? Arm yourself with information before you go. Do a little research on how a shoe should fit and the different style options so you have a better idea what questions to ask during the fitting process. And then… if you feel like you’re getting the run-around or just don’t know that the shoes they’ve put you in are what you need/want don’t be afraid to say, “Hm, I’m not sure, I’m going to have to think about it” and walk out. I know you might feel bad having taken up the salesperson’s time and maybe you’re the only person in the store and you feel obligated to buy something. But you’re not. I speak from experience here (know how I mentioned in that post that I dumped a pair of brand new slippers in the shoe exchange box at the studio? that’s how I ended up with them). It’s your hard-earned money and they’re there to serve you, not the other way around. M-kay? Oh, do note, though, that some pointe shoe fitters will charge for a fitting if you don’t buy anything. In that situation I’d say better to pay the fee than buy a pair of shoes you aren’t excited to dance in.
If you’re an experienced dancer and have found a shoe that works for you and you just need a replacement, then the online thing can be a great way to save money and time, so obviously feel free to order away. But even so, every once in a while it’s good to go have a try-on in a real store and see what might be new. Styles change and feet change over time… it can be fun to try on something different once in a while… even if it only serves to reiterate that your Old Faithful style is the best.
Wherever you buy from, make sure you find out their return policy. Assuming they take returns, wear the shoes at home (someplace clean!) for a bit. You only wear them for, what, 30 seconds, maybe a couple minutes in the store and it’s hard to know if they’ll work. Wear them for a good 15 minutes at home, try some dance moves in them, and if you discover that they’re not going to work… well, usually as long as they’re clean and unmarred you should be able to get a refund.
Any shoe thoughts from my readers? Would love to hear ‘em! Happy dancing!