Irish dance: Change your shoes, change your style

All varieties of Irish dance are distinguished by one main thing: style. There are other differences, of course, such as rules and structure that guide the dances themselves. However, style – the way in which the dancer moves- is key.

I have written about 6 different styles of Irish dance and referred to body stance – hand holds low vs high, low to floor flat feet style vs high up on the balls of the feet with pointed toes, and pretty much everything in between. I will write more on body stance in next week’s blog post Irish Dance: Tips for Body Style


I discovered some years ago that shoes can be really important in helping or hindering the style of dance you want to be doing. The emphasis here is on choice -it’s your choice about the style of dance you want to follow and I am not advocating one style over another. Simply, that you actively choose the shoe type that best suits how you want to dance.  Shoe design affects all these:

  • Focus point for your body weight – Whether you use all your feet to dance or dance mostly up, on the front balls of your feet;
  • Stability– how stable you are is a combination of the torsional strength & the floor surface and the surface area/size of shoe footprint (how much touches the floor)
  • Sound  – how much or little sound your shoes make is a combination of the weight of the shoe including thickness of the sole (see earlier blog), the pressure focus in one point on the shoe, and the material used for that pressure focus
  • Glide – a combination of the material on the sole & the floor surface, and the surface area/size of shoe footprint (how much touches the floor)

And I haven’t even started yet on how their appearance and how they look, which is often how we choose shoes – understandably. So, lets look at different features of shoe design to see what they do for your dancing style:

High heels vs low heelsLow and wide heel shoe for dancing
Lower heels will more easily allow you to rock back over those heels to put your weight there, using your heel for emphasis in any kind of battering or tapping move. It also allows you to move forward and put weight over the ball of your foot, which is needed when you want to get momentum to move.

Higher heels tip the dancer forward – dance on the front of your feet, which makes it easier to dance on the balls of the feet. The down side is that it takes considerable effort to get any weight or pressHigher heel and medium width heel shoe for dancingure just over the heel of the shoe. The other aspect is that you  have less control over the amount of glide because your centre of gravity is high – that’s why people can slide over. You can control this by deliberately lowering your centre of gravity by bending at the hips and knees more, which will increase your control. Will talk much more about this in the next blog.

Higher and wider heel and toe shoe for dancingWide heels vs narrow heels
Wide heels –  can create more stability and potentially a lot more sound as there is more footprint on the floor to connect and make that sound.

Narrow heels – think of ladies shoes that have a small point at the end of the heel. These are much less stable if you want to put any emphasis on your heels for battering or tapping but they certainly pack a pressure punch with all that weight focused in one little point. (Reminds me of the time I put a stiletto heel straight through the top of my partner’s shoe and his foot when I was doing rock ‘n’ roll dancing for a Grease production as a teenager….but that’s another story.)

Curve at front vs. flat sole to the floor
This aspect of shoe design is only relevant really is you do lift & tap movements, such as in Irish step dancing or in Irish sean nós dancing for example where you tap the end of your shoe behind you. The more curve you have at the tip of your shoe – see photos- the harder it is to do these movements. Also, the thickness of the sole and the covering over your toes will also make this either a simple thing to do or a painful one. Shoes that are designed with block taps (see below) give great protection and good sound.

Higher heel and medium width heel curved sole shoe for dancingLow and wide heel shoe curved at front for dancing

Higher and wider heel and toe extreme curved front shoe for dancingDANCING THE STYLE YOU WANT

Want a comfortable,all-round dance shoe for a variety of styles?
Something that has low twist, good forward bend, fits you well and not too tight or loose with covered in toes. Should have the thickest sole possible with widest heels possible. A heel height that feels comfortable to you, probably no higher than about 1 1/2 inches, depending on what you are used to.

Want to dance flat style and use your heels more- Irish sean nós and set dancing?
A shoe that has a wider sole and lower heel will allow you to do this. The other thing that will help your style is to bend more at the knees and hips and sit back slightly. See Irish Dance: Tips for Body Style

Want to dance pointed toes and up high- Step dance, sean nós or céilí dance?
Any shoe that has good forward bend in the sole will allow you to do this.

Want to be able to control your glide/ how much your shoes slip on the floor?
A combination of the right shoe, a clean floor and the right body stance – lower will give you more control. More about this next wee .Irish Dance: Tips for Body Style

Want to make a lot of sound with your shoes?
A heavy, wider leather sole will help, and you are more likely to get a more natural sound from this. Tinny tap sounds come from metal tips, also hollow plastic and fibreglass heels and toe fronts. You can also try out lots of different floor types – tiles, timber, metal strips, marble, concrete, etc – for a range of different sounds to play with.

Want to be able to control the amount of sound with your shoes?
Yes, please! This takes a lot of practice and is more to do with the way you dance than the shoe. I think varied sound, rhythm and steps are the most interesting to watch and listen to, rather than the same sound, rhythm and steps over and over. But that’s just my opinion and I’m still working on trying to achieve that myself.

Want to just look great?
Me too, but I’m still looking for the ultimate pair of shoes that gives me stability, control, sound glide, comfort, safety and elegance all in one package. Oh, and I’m pretty tired of black or brown – bright red or pink would be lovely. Let me know if you find this!

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss
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5 thoughts on “Irish dance: Change your shoes, change your style

  1. Pingback: Irish dance: Tips for Body Style | Irish Bliss

  2. Thank you so much for this insightful article! I’m the South African dealer for irish and highland shoes and am much more at home with highland.I’m learning everyday more and more about irish and what works for each dancer.Thanks!

    • Hello Magdalize- Happy to talk anytime. Shoes are really important to ongoing health for dancers, as are floors, so you are doing an important job. Thanks for your comment. Nora

  3. Pingback: Dance Shoes vs. Shoes for Dance? | Irish Bliss

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