I was recently asked by a new Irish set dancer what shoes I would recommend for dancing. I hesitated in replying, not sure why. I realised that to answer this question, I had to ask a question in return. You have to decide if you want:
1. Dance shoes or
2. Shoes for dance
They are not necessarily one and the same thing.
For dancers, your feet are the most important part of your body to look after. I have been largely ignorant of this and realise only now how lucky I was to grow up in the Pacific, barefeet most of the time, and have avoided many problems that come for most people from wearing poorly-fitting shoes.
1. DANCE SHOES:– My excitement at starting ballet classes when I was 6, was difficult to contain:- the stiff tulle tutus, the black stretchy leotard, the smell of the flat jars of cold cream with the big lids, and of course, the slim ballet slippers with the big flat, pink satin ribbons carefully stitched on. All these had the promise of being “a big girl” but more importantly, I would be identified as “a real dancer”, and that can be a very important motivation to keep you going in your new pursuit.
Irish dance shoes are those shoes that “look the part” and are sold as shoes for dancing and are aimed mostly at female dancers. For Irish set dancing & sean nós dancing, there are Halmor shoes or Inishfree shoes, and for Irish step dancing & ceili dancing- Rutherfords, Antonio Pacelli and Fays Shoes, to mention a few of the better known brands. All these shoes are typically black leather, usually laced up or with buckles or both for hard shoes, with soft shoes all being the ballet slipper-type shoe or ghillie, with a leather and/or plastic sole and are most certainly serviceable. An OK start for any dancer, unless you have problem feet or are trying to avoid having problem feet.
2. SHOES FOR DANCE:– these could be any regular shoe or boot, including “dance shoes” above,that you find comfortable and meets the general requirements of dancing. See a collection of suggested shoes for dance, on Pinterest here.
Why consider a different shoe that’s not made specifically for dancing?
Any dancer with feet that are slightly out of the ordinary – very large, very small, very wide, very narrow feet, feet with bunions or heel spurs (read more about how shoes actually cause these) will tell you how hard it is to get suitable shoes. People with one foot bigger than the other (like me), or older dancers with sore ankles, toes, knees and hips – you are probably also candidates for something different to the usual offering. And finally, dancers who’ve been dancing a long time and are beyond wanting a “serviceable” shoe and would like more overall – comfort, style, support and safety – to sustain them.
What makes a regular shoe or boot suitable for dancing?
I have written a lot already about various aspects of dance shoes, and would like to draw your attention again to some important aspects to consider when choosing from a wider range regular shoes or boots.
- Safety & Foot Health – Consider giving your toes solid protection from partner’s feet, helping toe-tap steps, and preventing bunions, hammertoes and arthritis. The shape of your shoe is very important – how pointy it is at the front and how much it curves up from the floor at the front – known as toespring. Generally, a shoe that doesn’t have proper room for your toes to move freely at the front can & shoes that lift your toes up at an angle of more than 15° toespring can cause bunions, hammertoes and arthritis –
- Irish step dancers take note – the current style of shoes with large taps on the front force the toes up at a strange angle.
- For toe protection from partners and also for styles doing toe-taps (lifting and pointing toes at the floor and tapping on the floor), the footwear should be hard or like a solid bubble over your toes, where the upper meets the sole at the front of the shoe.
- Supportive–solid arch support with a stiff shank down the middle and thicker soles- see here how to test shoes for support, any shoe at all including dance shoes:
- By the way, those so-called “dance trainers” do not pass the test -no support at all with a split sole & rubber soles. Sorry to disappoint but keep well away from them if you want to keep your knees, hips and ankles healthy.
- Appropriate grip and glide sole in the right places for your dance style. This will depend on the material the shoe sole is made of. Soles that slide are made of leather, suede (which is the inside layer of leather hide but not strong) or plastic will work well. A small layer of rubber on the heel will probably be OK for most styles. However, rubber or any sticky synthetic across the ball of the foot is a no-no. If you are dancing low to the floor – set dancing, two-hand dancing and a flatter sean nós style- you need plenty of glide on the sole and a small bit of grip on the heel. If you are dancing up-style on the balls/front of your feet – step dancing, céilí dancing and a sean nós- you will need a little bit more grip and excellent balance!
- Good fit & comfortable- not loose, toes can wiggle and won’t give you blisters. People talk about “breaking in” footwear – a complete load of nonsense, in my view. If a shoe or boot needs “breaking in” it means it doesn’t fit you, isn’t well made or does not suit your purpose and is more likely to break your feet. The shoe or boot should bend forward easily, otherwise you will get heel rubbing & blisters – something has to give (see the video above – Test 1). This is an area of the shoe that will become a bit more flexible with use.
- Width of shoes – this is a bit more flexible, depending on the material. Good leather will stretch a bit but you have to be realistic about how much. There are mechanical stretchers available for width. I managed to get my beautiful Italian leather shoes (AUS$10 second-hand: worth about $350) to stretch wider by filling them with wet newspaper, taking the paper out and wearing them around without socks. This is a seriously yucky, damp experience-feels disgusting-but it worked after a number of repetitions wearing the shoe wet from the inside. And we dancers will go to amazing lengths to get what we want 🙂
- Pay attention to the length of the shoe – this must be right. You should be able to get your finger just inside the back of your heel a the top. You should also be able to comfortably wiggle your toes around at the front, and your big toe should not touch any part of the shoe upper. If you can’t do that, the shoe is probably too short. I know from personal experience – have just lost my big toenail yesterday after using a pair of dance shoes I started with in 1998 that has caused my toenail to (very slowly!) de-laminate. Suffice to say you can avoid this with proper fitting shoes.
- Shoe heel & sole size – Heel height & sole shape will make a difference to your dance style. I have written a lot about heel height already and how this can affect your dance style. In addition, the wider and bigger your shoe sole is, the more sound you will make and the more supportive the shoe will be – basic physics of a bigger surface area.
- Sound – In addition to having a wider shoe sole, there are two ways of making sound with your feet – mechanically with a footwear material that “sounds loud” like metal, wood or fibreglass – front & heel metal taps, hollow heels, hollow fronts of shoes, etc. The second way is through technique – a skilled dancer will be able to get sound out of barefeet, assuming the floor is not made of rubber! Most dancers may choose to use both, depending on the dance style and what is acceptable.
- Shoes that stay on – that might sound like the obvious but having your shoe fly off in the middle of a dance is most disconcerting, especially if you are performing. Laces, straps or elastic across the front is a most useful feature.
- Shoe Style– Look good, feel good and give you confidence on the dance floor. Coimisiún Irish step dancing has regulations around shoe colour (must be black) & aspects of shoe style that must be adhered to but I suspect that many other types of shoes would do the job well and may actually reduce injuries. I, for one, am a bit tired of the “usual” dance shoes, hence my exploration for the last few years with all manner of shoes for dance, including my old cross-country ski boots, which are fabulous for sean nós dancing (except for the rubber on the soles!). I noted at the end of my last dance shoe article that I wanted to find a shoe that was either bright red or pink , and I have found that in my ideal sean nós shoe, and am busy saving up to buy them!