If clothes, as Shakespeare contended, make the man, then shoes certainly do make the dancer. It doesn't matter whether you're a competing professional or a total beginner, good dance shoes are an absolute necessity if you want to perform to your best and progress as a dancer.
Dance floors come in many shapes, sizes and surface materials and, as a result, can be notoriously fickle things. Not enough grip, too much grip and random sticky spots can all lead to awkward turns or sudden foot-slips, and it's here that good quality, genuine dance shoes can make all the difference.
Some Basic Dance Shoe Info
Dance shoes come in several flavours, but the two main types are Ballroom and Latin.
Latin shoes usually have a higher heel and raised arches in order to help with toe leads and hip movement. Although the difference is more obvious when comparing ballroom and Latin shoes for ladies, men's Latin shoes will have a Cuban heel, rather than the lower heel of the kind that you'll find on everyday or dress shoes.
High quality dance shoes aren't as expensive as you might think. They can be had for well under $200 and can last several years if looked after properly.
They are the single best investment you can make for your dancing pleasure.
What makes a good dance shoe?
Technically, any shoe can be worn for dancing, from trainers and sneakers to hiking boots, but even the best fitting dress shoe will still fall way behind a proper dance shoe. The reason dance shoes work so well is that they are made for purpose, fitting the foot as close to perfectly as a shoe can, but with a sole designed to give the right amount of grip 'n slip so that every step can be performed with confidence.
The uppers of the shoe can be a variety of different materials or combinations of materials, and will be predominantly leather for men's shoes. Ladies' shoes are often leather, satin or even suede, depending on the style and purpose of the shoe.
Where dance shoes really come into their own is with the sole that is used. The nature and purpose of dance shoes is such that they will be usually be unsuitable for general everyday wear. One reason is that many styles use a Nubuck or micro fibre suede sole, often lambskin or other similar 'soft' material and, whilst this gives superior performance, it also means they can be very susceptible to damage from stones or sharp objects and are therefore only ever worn in the dance venue. The vast majority of social dancers will be happy to wear other shoes for travelling to and from a venue, and then changing into their dance shoes before taking to the floor. Because so many people do this, there's no reason to be self-conscious about changing shoes and it quickly becomes an easy habit.
Suede also provides exceptional flexibility which may be restricted with other types of sole, and this alone means that taking two minutes to change shoes is well worth the time. There are minor care considerations with suede soles, which we'll talk about later.
For all that, however, some people don't like to have the inconvenience of carrying a second pair of shoes to a venue and prefer to have dance shoes that have a more robust full leather sole, similar to formal or dress shoes. The advantage of this is that a single pair can be worn from home to venue, although leather soles can still suffer damage over rough ground or from stones etc., and care must still be taken.
Although it will ultimately be your personal choice, the extra effort of a suede sole is well worth it.
Latin or Ballroom?
For men, the choice of whether to buy a shoe intended for Ballroom or Latin is reasonably straightforward. Although several aesthetic styles are available - brogue, plain, retro etc., the only real difference between Ballroom and Latin in men's shoes is that the Latins have a slightly higher heel to emphasise the hip movement in those dances. Because of that, and unless you are likely to only be dancing Latin, ballroom shoes are an easy and sensible choice for most men.
For ladies, however, the range of styles can be mind boggling! Look at any specialist dance shoe retail website and you'll see just how much choice there is. The vast majority of styles are Latin, and this is largely down to them being the preferred choice for social dancers who might own just one or two pairs of dance shoes. Given the impracticalities of changing shoes according to the dance, Latin shoes are a little more versatile than ballroom shoes for ladies, and can be worn just as easily for both types of dance.
Generally speaking, the two ladies' styles can easily be identified with a quick glance. Latin shoes will usually be open-toed and much more 'strappy' than ballroom, which will be much more like a standard court shoe but with a buckle fastener across the top of the foot. What might be a surprise is that heels may have very different heights across any available range. Beginners would be best suited to a slightly lower heel as it can take some time to get used to executing dance steps in even moderately high heels.
One important factor to be aware of when buying ladies Latin dance shoes is the fit. because they are intended to be close fitting, if you have slightly wide feet, some styles may prove uncomfortable. Even similar looking styles by the same manufacturer may have very different widths to the finished shoe, and it's vital to be as comfortable as possible if you're going to be dancing for extended periods of time.
This is why it's always worth hunting down a specialist supplier within travelling distance, in order to be able to try the shoes before you buy. You'd be amazed how one style may fit perfectly and another might either be so narrow that you can't get your foot in or so wide that it feels like wearing Wellington boots!
However, as with most things today, buying dance shoes online is usually the cheapest way to go but there a couple of things to consider. The shoes can often take 8-10 weeks to arrive and they're not always great quality, so choose your supplier carefully!
The following websites have provided good service and quality in the past, and are well worth looking at if you prefer to buy online:
Light in the Box
If you want to shop in a store in Adelaide, where you can see and try the shoes at first hand, try DANCE FX at 152 Unley Road - they have a decent range to choose from.
Turning, stopping, spinning, and often at high speed, means your dance shoes take a surprising amount of punishment. One reason they are able to withstand such traumas is that they are designed and built to be flexible at the right times. This flexibility can be compromised, though, if care is not taken both when wearing the shoes and in the aftercare necessary to keep them in tip top condition.
It may sound obvious, but your dance shoes must be fastened properly to make sure that your foot isn't sliding about inside. Even leaving aside the risk of a turned ankle if your feet aren't stopping or turning in alignment with your shoes, the constant over-flexing of the sole and uppers can result in separation of the two. For men, it's as simple as making sure the shoe laces are tied tightly and securely. For ladies, replace 'laces' with 'buckles' and it's a similar result, although there is the extra consideration of making sure that the foot is correctly positioned prior to fastening the strap, for both comfort and performance.
In both cases, be gentle when putting the shoes on to avoid increased wear and tear on the more susceptible components such as the straps around the toes on ladies' shoes.
Dance shoes will last even the most enthusiastic of dancers a decent length of time if looked after properly.
Some simple basic rules are not to keep the shoes in any kind of plastic or other non-breathable bag or box because of the damage a damp environment can do to the materials, clean off any foreign substances as soon as possible and think about accessories such as heel protectors. Heels are often the first thing to wear out on many ladies' shoes that carry even a moderate heel and heel protectors will usually have a suede tip which, once worn out, can easily be replaced.
For men, the time-served method of removing shoes, where the heel of one shoe is anchored down by the toe of the other and the foot is unceremoniously dragged out, should be avoided. Not only could this damage the sole, the heel or the upper, it is also likely to leave unsightly scuffs on the shoe itself.
If you are using patent leather shoes, then the use of proper cleaning substances is crucial in order to maintain the flexibility of the leather. Without it, the upper will be prone to cracking due to the excessive movement they will be subjected to when dancing.
The most crucial bit of maintenance with dance shoes, however, is the sole. The nature of a suede sole, in particular, means that the nap (the textured feel of the material) wears smooth very quickly and the softness of the material itself means small objects can easily become embedded.
The easiest way to keep a suede sole in full dance condition is to invest a few dollars in a wire Shoe Brush. These are very stiff (and rather sharp!) brushes that 'rough up' a smooth sole very well with just a few passes of the head. They will also remove most embedded detritus quite easily. Care must be exercised when using a shoe brush, as contact with any part of the shoe other than the sole could result in considerable and permanent damage, such is the nature of the bristles. They will also take the skin off stray fingers quite easily!
As far as necessary accessories go, a shoe brush is essential and heel tips are advisable (and possibly mandatory in some venues or studios). A wide range of other accessories are available, the use of which will depend on your individual circumstances.
When buying dance shoes, although it's not usually necessary to pay a fortune for good quality, nor is the cheapest option always the best. Try before you buy, if you can, and make sure the shoes you buy are comfortable. Dancing quickly becomes an ordeal with sore feet or uncomfortable shoes. Never underestimate the need to keep your shoes clean and in good overall condition. Spend a couple of extra dollars on a shoe brush and you'll wonder how you managed without it.
Unless you have no intention of dancing Latin routines, then Latin shoes will suit most ladies for both styles. For men, basic ballroom shoes will do the same thing.
Most of all, good dance shoes will help you to really enjoy your dancing far more than if you don't have them.