Once you've progressed beyond the brand new beginner stage, having proper dance shoes will make your dancing easier and more enjoyable. But there are dozens of brands and thousands of styles - how do you choose the shoe that's right for you?
Choosing a shoe is like choosing a suit. Just as some brands of clothing will tend to produce clothes whose cuts suit your body, you'll find that some brands of shoes suit your feet and others just don't, no matter how much you love the look of the shoe. Buying a shoe that isn't the right shape for your particular feet is an investment in nothing but pain.
Our best advice is to shop around by trying on several different brands.
Try on heaps of different pairs of shoes, different styles from different manufacturers, and have a bit of a wander around in them. Practice steps from a few different dances. With luck, you'll find a shoe that your feet immediately love. That's the shoe to buy, even if it's twice as dear as another shoe. Like any well-made shoe, a pair of dance shoes will cost you between $60 and $300. If you're lucky enough to find an inexpensive shoe that feels great, that's fantastic. But if the shoe that feels wonderful is dearer, bite the bullet, spend the money, and get the shoe that fits best.
Here are some things to look out for.
No dancewear shop will be happy for you to put your sweaty feet directly in their nice brand new shoes, and fair enough. Take a pair of socks or stockings or footlets with you. Ladies, if you generally wear your dance shoes on a bare foot, take the thinnest pair of footlets or knee-high stockings you can find. Cheap supermarket knee-highs are unattractive but perfect. If you don't wear bare feet in your shoes, take whatever kind of socks or tights or footwear you usually dance in. When you're looking for a snug fit, a slightly thicker or thinner sock can make a big difference. And using the pre-loved ones that dancewear shops keep on hand is just kind of gross. If you use insoles or orthotics, take them with you too.
Your dance shoe should fit snugly but not tightly on your foot. Look out for a few key points on your feet. You don't want pressure on the ends of your toes. Contact is okay, but pressure is a problem. Check the pressure on the outside of your little toe and on the large knuckle below your big toe. A slightly too narrow shoe feels fine for a few minutes but becomes excruciating after an hour or two, so be very judgemental about tightness across here. Look for a snug fit on your heel. If your shoe is loose around your heel, you're in for a whole lot of blisters. And look for a suitable fit across the top of your instep. If you have high arches, you want to ensure you won't have too much pressure. On the other hand, if your feet are flatter, you need to make sure that you can tighten the shoes so you're not swimming around in them. In particular, for ladies with low arches, be wary of open toe shoes with a high heel - flat feet have an irritating habit of sliding forward through the shoe so your toes dangle off the end and your heel gets a sloppy fit. Dance shoes will invariably stretch and flex and adapt to your feet a little, fabric more so than leather, so they will soften, but they won't completely change size for you.
Both men's and women's shoes are available in a range of heel heights. For both sexes, Latin shoes generally have higher heels than ballroom shoes. (Why? Because a higher heel gives you more hip movement.) The most important thing is that you wear a heel that feels comfortable for you. If you're going for higher heels, make sure you can stand on one straight leg and point the other toe out in front of you and still have the heel of the front foot well clear of the floor. There's no rule about heel height - it depends on the flexibility of your ankles and the strength of your feet and the tolerance of your knees. If a heel feels unstable, just don't go there. Ladies' heels come not only in a range of heights, but also in a range of shapes and thicknesses. If your ankles aren't particularly strong, a broader heel might work better for you than a very fine one.
Most dance shoes are very well made. You should be able to take long and short steps, walking both heel first and toe first. If you can't do these different kinds of walks feeling confident and absolutely sure of your balance, then the shoe isn't right for you. If the heel feels wobbly, don't touch it.
Dance shoes generally come in satin, canvas, plain leather, or patent leather. Plain leather is the least troublesome of these. Fabric shoes wear out much faster, and get very dirty very quickly. They'll also tend to soften and lose their shape more quickly than leather shoes, which means your feet get less support. Patent leather shoes look fabulous, but they require constant attention - not in terms of care, as they wear very well, but the shiny surface tends to grab and stick when you brush your feet, so you will always need to apply vaseline or a similar lubricant to the surfaces before you dance. Patent also tends to stay stiffer than any of the other materials, so they last well but don't mould so nicely to your feet. Plain leather shoes are not as beautiful as satin or patent, but in all other respects they combine the best of both worlds. They do soften and mould to your feet, but they generally stay robust and supportive for a reasonable length of time. They are easy to care for and to clean. The surface will wear (if you dance well!), but if appearance is important to you, they're very easy to keep looking reputable with paint or shoe polish.
Ballroom and Latin shoes generally come with a suede sole, although resin and leather soles are also available. The suede is perfect in terms of resistance, slip, and its capacity to let you feel the floor. If you are very naughty and wear your dance shoes out in the street and the rain, you might be better off with a resin sole, although these are stiffer and not so lovely to dance in. Suede soles are not as fragile as many of the sellers would have you believe. Remember that it's skin, and skin is pretty good at surviving the daily assaults of a paddock, so unless you're really silly with your shoes, they're pretty hard to destroy.
Dance shoes are a tool to be used and worn, not a beautiful object to be preserved. Get the tool that does the job best for you. Try on lots of shoes. Make sure you can dance in them. And choose the shoe that makes your feet the happiest.