Part 3: Fabulous Shoes for Fabulous Feet -- Fashion, Feel/Fit, Floor
by Diana Devi
Shoes -Fabulous Shoes! Both men and women love shoes; they are one of the ways we can express ourselves with fashion. For dancing however, the choice of shoes must be more than skin deep.
I love tango shoes and have them for every occasion: for practice; for milongas; for slippery floors; for sticky floors; even for dancing outside. Some would say I am obsessed with shoes; I, on the other hand, consider myself prepared. It is important to have the right equipment, and when you think about it, shoes are the equipment of the tango dancer!
Having the right shoes is critical for the tango dancer. They can promote good balance or make it more difficult. Improperly fitting shoes can cause a host of problems from calluses, corns, bunions, chronic foot pain and many others. Unfortunately, problems with the dancer’s feet do not stop at the feet! These problems will “travel up the body” creating problems in the knees and hips which can then travel up to the shoulders and neck. So now you know why I think the appropriate shoe and the right fit are so important!
So what do you need to think about initially when considering a new pair of shoes?
This can be a lot of fun because you start with the fashion or style you want the shoe to have. Then consider what the shoe feels like and how it fits. You also need to consider where you are going to be wearing them; especially what the dance floor will be like. These basic areas will determine what kind of shoe you will buy.
If you are looking for practice shoes you want a different fashion look than the shoes you wear for a fancy milonga or for dancing on a concrete rough-finished floor at a guerrilla tango event. Practice shoes require the least amount of discussion - you know what you want as far as the look. I tell my students that practice shoes should be not only comfortable but allow you to pivot easily. Look for shoes that do not slip off your feet and do not have a very high heel. You want a lower heel when you are learning. My advice is to have practice shoes with varying heel heights. This challenges stability and balance so that when you get to a milonga you are strong in these areas.
The fashion of your other tango shoes is also entirely up to the dancer. There are many styles and colors that can be found at festivals as well as on the internet if you are not located in an area where shoes are readily available. You can enjoy choosing shoes that express your style, your outfit, your mood or just your sense of fun.
Feel & Fit
Regardless of what you are wearing your tango shoes for -comfort rules! That is not to say that you have to forego style. Shoes can do both, but please remember that your shoes should feel as good as they look.
We do not a have any local tango shoe vendors so I must buy shoes when I attend festivals. I used to look at the shoes the first day but wait to buy until the second or third day of the festival. I thought they fit great and felt good at the time; however when I went to put them on after I returned home the shoes were too big! My lesson was DO NOT buy shoes when your feet are swollen from dancing for 2 or 3 nights straight. So now when I am at festivals, I buy my shoes early.
The first step is to take an inventory of what you have already purchased. Are all of your shoes the same brand? Are they the same style? The same heel height? Are they all practice shoes or milonga shoes? Having an idea of what you need makes it easier to make a rational shoe decision. Impulse buying is ok but it is important to have your basic needs covered first. It is important to note that you do not have to go out on day-one and purchase 4 or 5 pairs of shoes. In fact I do not recommend it.
I can tell you from my own personal experience and that of my fellow dancers that your feet change over time. I have one student that actually wears a size smaller shoe because he now has stronger feet with an arch. On the other hand, I require a wider shoe than I did before. In both scenarios we are using our feet in a different way than we did when we started dancing tango. Our feet have changed in response to informed use.
So how do I know what to look for in a shoe? Let’s break down the things to look for in shoes and how to tell if your shoes fit. Here are the early indicators that tell you if the shoe fits so that you can wear it confidently.
No part of your foot should be hanging out of the shoes. That means no toes over the front and no heels over the back edge on the shoe. All of your toes should be inside the shoe. Shoes are designed to be worn; not walked on and around. If your heel hangs off the back, your weight will be shifted back thus altering your balance. If your toes are hanging off the front to the shoe you are more likely to stub it (i.e. on your dance partner) or more importantly you alter the way your foot receives the weight of your body. It is like walking on an uneven surface which alters your balance.
Your foot should not look like a stuffed sausage encased in the shoe. I know that is a dramatic way to put it but look at the shoe, does it look like it is your shoe or does is look like you are trying to stuff your foot into a size too small for you? Shoes that are too tight cause calluses, corns, bunions etc. They also impact posture and balance so critical for tango.
Gentlemen, are the laces too tight over the top of your foot? Ladies, can you buckle the strap with room to spare? There should be at least an inch from the hole that you need before the end of the strap. The straps are designed to fit inside the buckle. Why you ask? According to my shoe repair guy (his wife has been dancing for over 25 years) without enough room at the end of the strap, it does not take the pressure the way that it was designed to. This will create too much strain on the strap, causing it to break or tear the hole. You should be able to fasten the strap properly and still move your foot comfortably. While it is true the straps will stretch, it is important for you to be able to move your foot. If you can point and flex your foot comfortably with the strap moderately tight then it is a good fit. If you see that there is room on the strap for an additional hole, request a hole to be added if you agree to purchase the shoes. If that is not possible and you wish to purchase the shoes, have your shoe repair shop add a hole before you wear them.
Does the ball of your foot lie flat in the shoe? The shoes should be tight enough to prevent slipping but loose enough for you to spread your foot while you dance. Some shoes will stretch more than others. As a general rule, suede stretches the most; leather is next, and then patent leather. Patent leather is leather that is treated to give the surface the shiny look but this limits its ability to stretch. Generally fabric shoes are created so they stretch very little. Vegan leather shoes are also available but most stretch very little. The materials for vegan tango shoes have been evolving so I would talk to the vendor for specifics.
So what about the heel? Place both of the shoes on a flat surface with the toe of the shoe pointing away from you. What do you see? Do the shoes lean in or lean out? If it does, that is what is going to happen to your body in these shoes. My second pair of tango shoes had this problem. They were beautiful, a deep luscious purple suede. I was in love with them the minute I saw them. After I had been wearing them awhile I notice that I felt like I was always leaning to the left. I happened to be brushing the suede and put one shoe down next the other. I was surprised to discover that it looked like they had the right heel on both the left and right shoe, which caused the left shoe to lean out to the left. I had to say good bye to my beautiful shoes but found that I was not leaning to the left anymore… which made my partners happier too!
Is the heel the right height for you? A very high heel is very sexy but is also very challenging for your body. The higher the heel, the more pressure that is placed on the ball of your foot. The really high heels can shift your weight forward onto the front part of the ball of your foot and exert pressure on the big toe joint. Current heel heights range from flat to 4 plus inches. Find a heel height that works for you. I have given up all of my 4 inch high heels in favor of lower heels; my tallest heels are 3 to 3.5 inches high. The decision is easy once you think about it; would you rather be seen for an hour or so in 4 inch heels or would you rather be dancing comfortably all night in lower heels that are just as attractive? Remember if you are dancing close embrace your partner can not even see your heel height. However, he or she can feel it if every time you move you are in pain. In the first installment of the Fabulous Feet blog series I talked about the importance of varying the heel height, so remember to purchase shoes of differing heights.
If you wear orthotics remember to bring them with you when purchasing so you try on the shoes with the orthotic. The orthotics are designed to change the way that your foot hits the floor so use them to determine the fit of the shoe.
How does the shoe feel? If your feet are not comfortable from the beginning, then these are not the shoes for you. Sometimes leather/patent leather shoes can be a bit stiff but once again if the shoes is not comfortable then do not buy them!
Now that we have covered the basics, let’s dig a little deeper into a few areas that are not so readily apparent. We will start with the heel and work our way forward.
Where is the heel placed? If the heel is set too far back on the shoe it will throw your weight back; if it is set too far forward it will fold under you when you transfer weight. Tango walking backwards usually will tell you right away if the heel is in the right place for you. Look at where the heel is placed on the shoe and where the heel hits the floor. Here is an example:
Notice how far back the heel is placed on the black shoe as compared to the gold one!
The diameter of the heel: Does the heel come down to a spiky point or is it a little larger at the tip? The larger the diameter of the heel, the more forgiving the shoe. This is because a spike heel requires much more skill and accuracy to land on than a heel that is even a tiny bit wider. An easy way to think about this is to ask if it is more difficult to balance on the point of a sharpened pencil or to balance on something that is the diameter of a dime. Of course, it is personal choice but you should make an informed decision that includes what the long-term effects will be. Making good decisions now will ensure an extended number of years that you can enjoy tango dancing.
For gentlemen, you have the option of a traditional heel or a Latin/Cuban heel. A traditional heel is low, such as you would find on a pair of dress shoes. A Latin or Cuban heel is higher and a little angled toward the floor. A higher heel can help with the desired forward position for dancing tango, but just be mindful that you will have to develop a few exercises and stretches that can be done post-dancing to counteract the strain on your body. Choose the heel that is most comfortable for you.
Is the “heel box” closed or open? The heel box is the back part of the shoe that is above the sole. Shoes can come with a closed back meaning there is an upper part of the shoe in the back; or with straps on the back or backless. The closed back helps keep the movement of the heel of your foot connected to the movement of the heel of your shoe. Some women find that their feet slide in the shoes with just a strap. Others find it too confining to wear shoes with the heel enclosed. For a beginning dancer it will be easier to start with a shoe that has a closed back so the foot is connected to the heel structure.
Does the arch of the shoe fit the arch of your foot? If the arch is in the wrong place then it will shift your weight one direction or the other. If the arch is too far forward then the shoes will shift your weight more to the front part of the ball of your foot, sending your whole body forward. If the arch is too far back it will shift your weight back so you feel like you are falling backwards. If you know something is not right but are not sure, try this: with the shoes on lift your heel off the ground (weight on the balls of the feet or demi-point) does it look like the ball of your foot arches in the same place that the shoe arches? If the answer is yes then the arch for that shoe is in the right place.
The shape of the box. Traveling down the shoe to the very tip is the box of the shoe. The box is the area of the shoe from the arch forward. The shape of this area can be designed for people with toes that are all about the same length or for people that the big and second toes are longer than the rest of the toes. I am a member of the square toe club. What does that mean? It means that if you look at my toes they are almost a straight line across. Other people may have more of a rounded foot which means that the big toe is taller and the other toes slope downward from there to the little toe. The shoe that you are looking at may be designed for your foot or it may not. For example I know if I buy certain styles of shoes my little toe is going to hang over the edge, because the shoes are designed for someone with a rounded foot not a straight foot. So take note of the shape of the box in regard to your own foot shape.
What else should you look at regarding the box? Check where the side of the shoes sit on your feet. Are there places that are more comfortable than others? Some people prefer a very open box which allows their feet to spread. Some people like very thin straps to hold their foot in the shoe. The important thing is that your foot should not slide around. Sliding will allow your foot to pivot inside the shoe; in other words you pivot and leave your shoe behind -not good!
Hopefully you will be dancing on a good floor most of the time for tango. This means you will want a suede or leather sole on your dance shoe. Because pivoting is a major component of Argentine Tango, it is critical that the soles allow pivoting easily. If you have suede soles you will need a suede brush so you can brush up the nap that becomes flattened from dancing. This prevents the soles from becoming too slippery.
Because dirt and grit can damage your shoes, never wear your shoes outside.
After a while, your suede or the leather can wear out, but luckily your shoe repair shop can re-sole your shoes if you have taken proper care of them.
If the dance floor you are using is slippery, slightly dampen your soles by tapping them with a moist paper towel, they will be a little more sticky and prevent you from mishaps. If you are dancing on a floor that has been used by ballet dancers the floor may contain areas of rosin that will prevent you from pivoting. In this case I tap a little powder on my soles that is called Super Slide. It is easily found at bowling alleys and can be applied frequently as it does not damage your shoes or leave a residue.
Other floors that you may find yourself dancing on are concrete. This is very hard on your body and your shoes. Even if the cement is polished, you should use shoes that have extra padding to minimize harm to your body. These types of floors are also hard on your shoes so I tell my students to wear old shoes or practice shoes for this with extra padding.
Whatever your shoe choice is, you should be able to find shoes that feel and fit properly but still express the fashion style that pleases you. Your fabulous feet are what move you through space and carry you across the dance floor so make sure they feel comfortable in your shoe choices.
Before you buy those shoes to die for –look at them closely to see how the heel is placed and its height and width. Next try on the shoe and walk about in it a bit. Do your feet say “Oh yah baby” or are they screaming “No -not these again”? Now bend the shoe by lifting your heel off the floor. Are the arches in the right place? Do the straps or laces feel right? Ask yourself if these are shoes you could dance the night away in, or are you going to be in the middle of one of the best tandas of your life and all you can think about is how much your feet hurt?
These days it is possible to have the look and the comfort that you need and want. Be patient and the right shoe will come to your fabulous feet!
on 2015-01-21 17:58 by Oxygen Tango
Diana Devihas a unique approach to Argentine Tango instruction. Her rich background in dance includes classical ballet; tap; jazz; contact improve; modern dance; Middle Eastern and East Indian dance. She is also an educator in Nutrition for the dancer’s body; Gyrotonic for strength and flexibility; Alignment/balance combining the Gohkale and Mahler-Klein methods. From this diverse expertise, students gain tools necessary to sculpt their bodies for sustainable support of their tango dancing. Visualization and meditation are used to reinforce learning.
In the classroom Diana is known for quickly identifying key adjustments necessary to release obstructions or create foundations for better dancing. Students equally appreciate her expertise in tango techniques and her sense of fun. Diana studies with well-known masters in and outside of Argentina. She has performed and taught internationally and is presently teaching and dancing Argentine Tango in Minneapolis Minnesota, where she served as President of the Tango Society of Minnesota for several years.