Welcome to our Irish Bliss/ Easy Irish Dance information on a variety of aspects about Irish dance shoes. You can go to each individual blog post or read all the information in one hit.
- AVOIDING SORE FEET
- HOW SHOES CAN AFFECT YOUR DANCE STYLE
- DANCE SHOES vs. SHOES FOR DANCE?
- MY SHOES: WELL-HEELED & WELL TRAVELLED
1.AVOIDING SORE FEET
7 tips on how to avoid sore feet, ongoing knee problems, hip problems and a plethora of other ailments that can come with Irish dancing, despite that it should be good for you! I have some suggestions for you that I have worked out over a long period of dancing. I also used to sell shoes and boots for hiking, and there are many similarities with dancing, including getting lots of mileage!
1. Supportive shoes
Supportive shoes are those that have stiffness under the arch of your foot, and that move the right way when you dance. Shoes that offer the best support for your feet are torsionally strong, which means they don’t have much twist. What you DO want is the shoe to bend forward at the ball of your foot to allow your heel to go up and down. New shoes often take a while to soften in this part of the sole. So, if the shoe doesn’t bend and give, your foot still wants to go up and this creates friction and rubbing inside the shoe, creating the potential for blisters. Something’s gotta give!
How can I test my shoes?
Torsional strength – grip the front of your shoe with one hand, the back with the other and twist. If it’s difficult to twist them they’re supportive, and if they’re easy to twist, they’re not supporting your feet.
Forward bend- grip the front of your shoe tightly
with one hand, the back with the other and lift the heel up and down and pressing it forward. If it bends easily, there’s plenty of give in the shoe, and if it’s very stiff and hard to lift up from the heel, it’s going to be uncomfortable to dance in for a while or maybe permanently.
Socks or other padding will help to create comfort, absorb sweat and smell (cotton or silk are better – synthetics are not generally as absorbent) and help to minimise the foot and toes rubbing directly on very stiff shoes. I like using little cotton ‘sockies’ that just cover the base of my foot and fit snugly inside my shoes, unseen. Some people like removable insoles, cushioned soles, cushioned socks – there’s plenty of options.
3. Good fit
The closer the inside shape of the shoe – the last – is to your foot, the more comfortable it will be for you. There will be the less friction or rubbing between your foot and the shoe. You know your shoes fit well if you can wriggle your toes comfortably in the front of your shoe and if your heel stays in complete contact with the inner sole of your shoe when you are walking!
4. Wide and thick soles
This is an aspect of dance shoes that I think is overlooked but for me has become quite important. The thickness and width of the sole is very important for support and stability – the wider they are, the more stable they are and the thickness gives you insulation & protection between you and the floor. It seems very obvious but most ladies/ women’s dance shoes have very thin soles and therefore offer very little support, stability, protection or comfort. In addition, a higher heel will press weight forward, focusing the body weight and pressure onto that thin sole, making it even more uncomfortable.
And my final argument for thicker and wider soles, they will give you a much better sound on the floor. If you’re trying to do a bit of battering or some sean nós steps, try a pair of mens shoes and hear the difference! For more on this, I will be writing on this topic next week Change Your Shoes, Change Your Style.
5. No to open-toes shoes for couples dancing
Open-toe shoes designs are an invitation for some clod to unwittingly stamp on your pinky toes. This can be very painful, particularly if your partner has read this article and has got the good thick, wide, heavy shoes on….
6. Shoes that slide on a clean floor!
Slide is critical to reducing the potential for knee injuries. A shoe that sticks to the floor, for any reason whilst you are trying to move, will cause jarring and strains.
Soles that are leather will give you lovely glide, although you will probably not want the edge of your heel to slide. Suede is also leather- split grain rather than full-grain leather, which is the full outside part of the animal hide. Suede is soft and slippy but not as hard wearing. Plastic soles are also popular, will slide, will be quite durable and very LOUD! Try to avoid wearing any type of rubber sole under the ball of your foot, as these will give unwanted grip. However, rubber edges or something on the edge of the heel to give a small bit of grip can be useful so that you don’t go flying when you put all your weight on that heel edge.
If you only have rubber soled shoes – like runners, trainers, gym shoes – to dance in, a tip for increasing temporary glide on your shoe sole is to cover it with electrical duct tape (plastic) or masking tape (paper). Make sure you smooth it down well so that none of the sticky underside catches on the floor.
Oh, and that dance floor needs to be squeaky clean!! No spilled drinks, chewing gum or any sticky stuff whatever. It makes good sense to clean your floor every time before you start dancing.
For anyone who feels that they have too much glide and are unstable, this is potentially about your style of dancing, your shoes or both, which are all possible to remedy: see next week’s blog Change Your Shoes, Change Your Style.
7. Bounce the boards
Bouncy floors act like shock absorbers in a car – they take the impact of your full body weight and stop the jarring in your whole body. See the great bit of step dancing film below and note the wonderful bounce that accompanies the rhythm.
I have been to many dance classes and performances where dancers are on concrete, marble, parquet or floating timber floors laid on concrete . Not good in the long-term for your body: your knees, ankles, feet, hips – the works. This also applies to all dancing and sporting activities that have any kind of leaping, jumping or lift at all.
This is a more difficult problem to solve as events venues often go for the cheapest building option available and put in concrete. I think it’s a matter of making people aware and raising the understanding of the long-term health damage that these floors can do, including anyone who has to stand on them for long periods of time. You can make your own dance practice floor by using a plywood timber top with rubber mats underneath. (I have two of them that I have designed to fit snugly in the length of my car, so they’re portable as well).
2. HOW DANCE SHOES CAN AFFECT YOUR DANCE 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 (see earlier blog), 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 (see earlier blog), 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 heels
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 pressure 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.
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.
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 our article next week 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!
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 –READ MORE HERE. 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!
4. MY SHOES: Well-Heeled and Well-Travelled
Now that I am able to wear shoes again, I was looking at all my footwear for dancing and thinking about the progression of how they came to me and why I love them all.
The oldest in my collection by a country mile are my very traditional Australian RM Williams horse riding boots. Beautifully made with leather soles and elastic sides, they are the most comfortable boots you’ll find anywhere. I bought these off a friend (second-hand/ foot) for $20 when I was 13 years old and they are well over 30 years old (so am I!). Extremely well-travelled boots, coming to Ireland with me and back again, they have been re-soled and repaired many times since then and I gave them an outing in my first film “Sean-nOZ”.
My first set dancing shoes I bought in 1999 from the Talbot Dance Centre in Dublin – black lace-ups with leather soles and hollow, plastic heels. There are three screws in the base of heel and these make a tappy, tinny little sound. I was pleased with them: they made me feel part of the crowd. Those are now retired, hanging up in my cupboard with holey soles from 5 years and more of constant use. I bought another pair in 2005 from the same place, lovely people, and they are still going strong.
It was about that time that I got interested in doing sean nós dancing and I started to really look at the difference between mens shoes and ladies shoes, and noticed the effect it has on dancing style. It seemed to me that mens shoes were flatter and wider, and much better for the batter! The shoes are wider and the soles are quite often thicker and heavier than ladies shoes, giving better sound and stability, particularly if you want to dance more on the back of your heels, rather than on your toes or balls of your feet. Have you ever noticed that?
So, I decided to try it out and I got lucky – very, very lucky. I found a gorgeous pair of MaxMara brown Italian leather lace-up shoes (right) in a second-hand shop here in Australia for $6. They are narrow fitting – perfect for my feet but they have a very wide, heavy sole that gives a good sound, and I think they look great, too. They were initially a bit tight, so I filled them with wet newspaper and wore them a bit while they were wet… you know, we do a few mad things for our dance passion!
The greatest compliment I got was when I turned up to the céilí at Mullaghbouy, Co.Louth end June 2012, and met up my lovely friend, John Joe Brannigan (his daughter Fidelma dances, too). We had both done the sean nós dancing class in Hilltown in early 2004 with Alison Heatley, and we always met up for at least one or two dances together every year I came back to Ireland. He took a great shine to my brown Italian shoes and I offered to swap with him. So, there were were, little (him) and large (me) doing the Clare Lancers together, dancing in each other’s shoes. I promised I would put them in my will to him!
Since then, I have found numerous pairs of Italian leather shoes – second-hand – and my current favorites are black, flat heeled and buckled Santorini shoes. They are a little bit too big but a thicker pair of socks has fixed that!
So right now, it’s pouring outside now, so I am going to exchange my dance shoes for gumboots, put another log on the fire and keep warm.
An áit a bhuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa thú.
Your feet will bring you to where your heart is.