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Buying Dance Shoes:
What, How, and Where

      

Good dance shoes make dancing even more of a pleasure. In class, shoes that let you pivot or spin halfway around on one foot are much better than anything else, because we'll be doing a lot of that in the turns we learn. Overall, you want shoes that let you pivot freely (to avoid knee damage), but not let you slip and fall. So, in general, leather-soled or suede-soled shoes are good, and rubber-soled sneakers, hiking boots, and L.L.Bean boots are not good. We don't really care, though, as long as you are comfortable.

If you are dancing fairly often, however, you should treat yourself to some good dance shoes. They'll set you back about $60-120, which is almost a bargain, considering how well made these shoes are and how expensive regular shoes are these days.


On this page:
What to buy
     -
Ballroom shoes
     -
Swing shoes
     -
Dance sneakers
     -
Insoles
How to buy
Where to buy
Alternatives


Related pages on our web site:
Do-It-Yourself Suede Soles
Suede Soles Maintenance (wire brush, etc.)
Dancing on bad (slippery or sticky) floors



WHAT TO BUY

In this section, "ballroom dance shoes" and "swing shoes" are actual shoe manufacturing categories -- it's what you ask for when you go into the store, as in "where are your ballroom dance shoes?" At the appropriate shoe stores (see below), they'll know exactly what you mean.

BALLROOM DANCE SHOES
These are suitable for either Ballroom or more formal evenings of Swing dancing. The good ones have suede soles that give you just the right amount of slip-and-grip, are as light as a feather, have built-in extra cushioning, and have a steel shank that runs from the center into the heel for fantastic support (especially in women's shoes) -- and still manage to weigh about 1/3 of an ounce. Okay, slightly more, but only slightly. Prices are pretty uniformly in the $120-150 range for almost all brands, with some discount lines available in the $70-100 range. How well do these feather-weight creations last? My $140 "Celebrity" brand shoes are now entering their 10th year of 2x-5x per week dancing!

Here is our summary of the real-world practical differences between the good shoes and the discount shoes.

HIGH QUALITY BALLROOM SHOES
($120-190)

DISCOUNT BALLROOM SHOES
($60-100)

Steel reinforcing shank
            - Runs from center of shoe into heel
            - Gives great support
            - Many more hours of pain-free dancing
            - Prevents lady's heels from breaking off!

No reinforcing shank in some discount shoes
            - Shoe feels more like a glove than a shoe, which is nice
            - Much less support
            - Expect much greater foot fatigue after an hour
            - Lady's heel likely to break off at some point

How to tell if there is a steel reinforcing shank: Hold the shoe in your hands and gently try to bend the toe downward and towards the heel. If the shoe bends fairly easily in the middle (just in front of the heel), there is no shank. If you can bend the toe but not the middle of the shoe, there is a shank.

High-density cushioning
            - Expensive materials such as Poron
            - Very effective -- your foot never "bottoms out"
            - Can dance many extra hours without foot fatigue

Inexpensive cushioning or no cushioning
            - Most folks get a 'bruised' feeling in the ball of the foot after a night of dancing

Higher quality construction
            - Sole feels flat & even, like a regular shoe
            - Allows good balance and control
            - Shoes last for years without falling apart

Lower quality construction
            - Sole often feels uneven, as if there is a hump down the middle from overlapping materials, or a dip in the middle from uneven coverage
            - Wobbly balance and weaker floor control
            - Rougher heel-counter area can cause more rubbing
            - Shoes fall apart much sooner

High quality leather
            - High quality leather conforms to foot
            - Shoes feel increasingly comfortable over time
            - Shoes last for years without falling apart

Lower quality leather
            - Lower quality leather fails to conform to foot
            - Shoes feel less and less comfortable over time
            - Shoes fall apart much sooner

 

Initial comfort. The reduced materials make some lines of discount shoes feel more comfortable upon first-hour wearing, which is a benefit. Just be sure to mentally project yourself into the future while walking around the store for 10 full minutes -- will the initial comfort remain after 1 hour of dancing? 2 hours? 5 hours? Is there enough support? Is there enough cushioning or are you bottoming out? Will the toe and heel straps (women) or heel area (men) feel comfortable after a few hours or are they rubbing? Is the crease across the toes (men's shoes especially) hitting your toes comfortably or is it pinching or rubbing?


The discount ballroom shoes are not terrible, but they are a major step down from the high quality ballroom shoes. Some people will find a discount shoe that suits them perfectly. Most of us, however, will find the large improvement in comfort and performance to be well worth the resasonably small increase in price.
            Lindy Hop exception: For general Swing dancing, Ballroom shoes work fine. But for Lindy Hop specialists, women tend to wear flats (usually sneakers) with suede leather soles glued on, and men wear either sneakers or leather dress shoes with suede leather soles glued on. The Aris Allen brand has become popular for its low-ish prices (especially for women) and fairly comfortable shoes. We have a web page for DIY suede soles.
            Details: How high the heel? For both women's and men's ballroom shoes, you have a selection of heel heights. The obvious advice is to get whatever you find comfortable. If you need a lower heel than is available in the store, ask them -- usually the shoe manufacturers offer custom heel sizes for about the same price. You'll have to wait a month or more, but you'll get what you want. For women's flats, see "Secret tip for ladies," just below.
            Details: Ballroom heel, Latin heel, or Tango heel? What's the difference, and does it matter? You might notice in the dance shoe stores that there are Ballroom, Latin, and Tango shoes that look virtually identical except for the heels. In general, for both men's and women's shoes, the "Ballroom" heel is low and normally cut, the "Latin" heel is a little higher and tilted (undercut) (this is especially common on women's open-toed models), and the "Tango" heel is a higher still and more tilted (undercut). The height and degree of undercut actually help your stance and posture in different dances. Ballroom dancers dance vertically or even a little arched back; Swing and Salsa dancers dance vertically through the legs; English/International Style Latin-Ballroom dancers dance upright and slightly forward; and Argentine Tango dancers lean forward towards each other. Those crazy little heel differences actually make it noticeably more comfortable to dance each dance style!
            We think that Ballroom heels should be your top choice for Ballroom, Swing and Salsa dancing; the Latin and Tango heels will tilt you too far forward and your butt will stick out. Latin heels are best reserved for the competition-oriented English/International Style Latin-Ballroom dancers, with their astonishing English interpretation of Latin dancing (weird but pretty) and its extremely specialized posture. West Coast Swing male dancers often prefer Latin heels, too, for the slightly forward posture they enforce. Tango heels should be your top choice for Argentine Tango, although for Beginners, Ballroom or Latin shoes will do just fine.
            WARNING: At many dance shoe stores, the staff will recommend Latin heels for Swing dancing and Salsa dancing. They are wrong. They are doing this with good intentions but based only on conversations with English/International Style Latin-Ballroom dancers. But no one dances genuine Swing or Salsa with that posture, so those are the wrong shoes.
            Details: Pointy heel or chunky heel? Most women's ballroom shoe designs come with heels that narrow to a stiletto-like point, but a few models come with heels that are more full-sized, akin to what you'll find on regular women's shoes these days. Most women find the full-sized heel to be more stable and therefore more comfortable for general dancing, especially for Salsa and Swing dancing. But most women also find that ballroom shoes are so well made that even the pointy-heel models are stable and comfortable.
            Details: Straps or strapless? In women's shoes, you face this choice as well. We strongly recommend a strap that comes around or across the top of your foot.
            Details: Closed toe or open toe? Women, let's face reality for a moment: you want closed toe. You'd want it steel-reinforced if they offered it, but they don't. Just don't tell your partner why you are insisting on this.
            Most important: Your shoes should be comfortable and make you happy. If that means ignoring all advice, ignore it!
            Secret tip for ladies: Men's ballroom shoes are slimmer-looking and therefore more feminine-looking than men's regular street shoes. If you want good-looking flats, consider trying on men's ballroom shoes, or anything else you see in the store in the Men's dance shoes section. They come with up to a 1.5" heel, some of them.

SWING SHOES
If you see people wearing what look like two-tone wing tips, either black-and-white or brown-and-white, they're wearing special shoes for Swing dancing. Despite looking like two-tone lawyer's shoes, they are actually extremely light weight. Prices are about the same as ballroom dancing shoes ($100-120 generally, with discount lines at $60-80), although they are usually not as beautifully built as their ballroom dancing cousins. Most brands of swing shoes have soles of a special rubber-like compound, vaguely like on bowling shoes, but better for dancing. And all of the heels are low -- both men and women wear flats. They were formerly very popular among the hard-core Swing and Lindy Hop dancers, especially the dancers who like to wear the retro costumes, and are said to be very comfortable for a long night of Swing dancing. The one fairly common complaint is that they offer very little support. And beware! When you wear those conspicuous black-and-whites, people are going to assume you are an expert dancer! (Virtually all of the brands now offer plain-black, for us humbler dancers.)
            Secret tip for ladies: See the Secret Tip for Ladies above.

DANCE SNEAKERS
For classes and informal dance venues, you might try the Capezio Dansneaker (similar designs available from Bloch and Sansha) -- it is a strange and comfortable sneaker built for dancers, with a rubber-compound split sole that includes a turning spot under the ball of your foot. It dances quite well, and dancers from all traditions tend to love it. It doesn't fit everyone's feet and it's not at all cheap (approx. $60 - 90+), but it looks good and you can wear it on the street as well as the dance floor. The potential disadvantage is the complete lack of support in the arch area. Also, some people, including us, find our Achilles tendons overstretched and in pain when Swing dancing long-term in these.

INSOLES (or thick socks)
You can probably double the number of hours you can dance in comfort if you buy and use a pair of insoles -- amazing the difference they make. (It's like the difference between walking to work in dress shoes versus running shoes, multiplied by four hours.) If your dance shoes have room for them, we highly recommend them -- but some women's sandal-like shoes simply won't have any place for them. Alternatively, you might want to try thick socks -- many people find them to be enough.
            The best inner soles are the ones sold for running shoes, about $10-18 per pair from any running-shoe place. Also very good are the ones sold specifically for Swing shoes (usually by the shoe's manufacturer), at about $18. We have not noticed any difference in comfort or quality between the $10 versus $18 insoles. For light duty at a light price, every pharmacy offers some Dr. Scholl's-type foam insoles; they are about 10% as effective as the good insoles and don't last long, but they're better than nothing. We recommend against "gel" versions because their squishy, shifty nature voids much of the precision contact you need with the floor.


HOW TO BUY

Take socks (and insoles). Be sure to take the right socks, stockings, and insoles with you, namely, whatever socks or stockings or insoles you like to wear while dancing. It makes an amazing difference in the fit for carefully-shaped dance shoes.

Go early to the shoe store, because you want to try on lots of different brands, lots of different models, and several different sizes. Give yourself and the store clerk (who is probably also the owner) plenty of time. Don't rush -- you want shoes that are extremely comfortable, or you'll hate dancing forever.

Walk around in them. Do some dance steps. Sometimes you won't notice a pinch or rub or a bad crease -- or the way the shoe falls off at a crucial moment -- until you start moving around. Do various moves that simulate the extremes of what you expect your feet to go through. Don't worry about looking foolish. You're in the Dance Shoes section of the store, after all -- if you don't try some steps, they'll think you're an idiot. If you don't find something extremely comfortable, try the other store (see below).

Try multiple sizes and multiple brands. Dance shoe manufacturers all cut their shoes differently. And their sizes vary a lot from what you'd expect. Try on lots and lots of shoes. (To help you approximate the size you'll need, you can find an excellent sizes chart for most of the major manufacturers at Patterson's/Back Bay Dancewear's web site. We recommend you print it and take it with you when shopping.)

Ask the staff for info and advice. The folks working in these stores -- unlike at regular shoe stores -- actually know about shoes and dancers' needs. They can tell you which brands run narrow, which have softer leather, which are better built, which are better for Swing or Latin or standard Ballroom, and can direct you to alternatives worth trying on in various price ranges. But in the end, trust your feet.

Buy snug or buy loose? Choose dance shoes that fit perfectly or are a little snug -- the leather will yield a bit quite soon. But only a little bit. You want to be comfortable from the first step you take, so don't overdo the snugness. Also, the heel should not slip at all, the toe should not pinch at all, and where the leather creases near your toes, there should be no discomfort at all.


WHERE TO BUY

Note: The following places have by far the largest dance shoe offerings in the Boston area, as far as we know. However, we're listing them here simply because we like them. They don't even know we've mentioned them, and we'd like to keep it that way, so hush. We may have their hours wrong, by the way, so please call them before heading over.

Teddy Shoes. Check out the good folks at Teddy Shoes in Central Square, 548 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA, (617) 547-0443, open 'til 6:00 pm most nights, 'til 7:00 pm on Fridays, closed Sundays. Because of the location -- two doors down from the Dance Complex -- they carry an astounding variety of shoes for virtually every dance form ever invented. Luckily for us, this includes several brands of ballroom shoes and swing shoes for both men and women; ballroom shoes also work very well for salsa. Teddy's may well be the best shoe store for ballroom, swing, salsa, and tango dancers on the East Coast, rivalled only by WorldTone in NYC. (And if you need tap shoes, ballet shoes, Irish Jig shoes, jazz shoes, flamenco shoes, 'exotic dancer' thigh-highs, or anything else you can dream up, they carry 'em! Just looking in their window is amazing.) NOTE: Service here is sometimes good, and sometimes horrible. If you get bad service, call and complain directly to Steve Adelson, the owner, who is pretty responsive.

Patterson's Back Bay Dancewear. 185 Cambridge St., Burlington, MA, 1-781-273-3089 or 1-800-554-2340. (Open to 6:00 pm M-F, to 5:00 pm Sat.) A superb source of dance shoes for over 25 years. Too bad they let their Boston Back Bay store go back in 2002! We have not visited this store, so we know nothing about their current selection of ballroom shoes and swing shoes. However, last we heard, they had reasonable offerings, along with a massive selection of ballet supplies and a good selection of Capezio Dance Sneaker models. Driving from Cambridge: Rte. 2 to I-95 (128) North to exit #33B; take Route 3A North (it becomes Cambridge St.); go 1.7 miles from I-95.

Outside the Boston metro area. If you live elsewhere and have made your way to our web site, hello! To find a store near you that sells dance shoes, flip open your Yellow Pages to "Dancing Supplies" or something (anything) like that. Call around. They'll know what you mean when you ask if they sell "Ballroom Dance shoes or Swing dance shoes." If that doesn't work, you might try calling the local dance studios (Yellow Pages: "Dancing Instruction" or the like) and asking them where to shop.

Buying over the internet or by mail-order. You really, REALLY ought to try dance shoes on before you buy them. So buying by mail-order or over the internet is a last resort -- to be done only if your local dance or shoe retailers can't get what you want. You can find mention of some internet retailers on one of the pages at www.havetodance.com. You can also call any shoe manufacturer and order directly from them. Be sure to check their returns policy.


ALTERNATIVES

Other shoes, cheaper shoes.
            For an interesting discussion of alternative shoes (jazz, character, 'athletic,' bowling, and skateboarding) and how well they work (or don't work) for ballroom or swing dancing, you might check out the Cheap Dance Shoe FAQ (or this archived text version from 1996). In the experience of our female friends, however, character shoes ($50-70) work only for a very light evening of dancing (i.e., less than 30 minutes of dancing in total), but will start hurting after you pass the 30-minute mark. In other words, character shoes are terrible for Ballroom, Swing, or Salsa dancing.

Do-it-yourself suede soles. For detailed instructions on how to convert any comfortable pair of shoes or sneakers you already own into a pair of suede-soled dance marvels, see our step-by-step do-it-yourself guide.

Temporary fixes for bad dance floors. See our page on Dancing on Bad Dance Floors.



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