Friday, 20 May 2011

Dancing Shoes

This rather long post is the first in an occasional series addressing what to wear for belly dance class, haflas and performance.  We mostly dance on our feet, so what to wear on the feet is an important and frequently-asked question.

In general, it depends on the venue and your own preference, but I’ve realised this isn’t a very helpful answer for newcomers.  My preference is to dance in bare feet, but I have ‘sticky’ feet and need to wear something if I’m doing any one-foot turns. Trying to turn whilst stuck to the floor results in ‘knee torque’ – very sore, damaged knees from twisting the knee joint.  Dance studios are few and expensive hereabouts, and very few rooms or halls have a lovely, clean wood or vinyl dance floor. Tile floors can be very cold and hard.  Most rooms are used by people wearing outdoor shoes, so even floors which have been swept or vacuumed are often so dirty you end up with black feet!  Even carpet can be surprisingly dirty and most ‘industrial’ carpet is quite coarse and prickly, making it difficult to turn on, whether in shoes or bare feet.

Unless you have really tough feet, they will need protection.  It’s especially important to have shoes to perform in if you’re not sure of the stage or floor surface.  Other dancers may have dropped beads and glass beads in particular can cut and get embedded in your feet.  The smallest things can result in cuts, as I found when I stepped and turned on a tiny, sharp piece of slate, which carved a slice in the ball of my foot.  Since then, I wear shoes most of the time.

I have ultra-wide feet and finding shoes is an issue, as some wide-fitting shoes really aren’t wide enough. Even though you can borrow hip scarves, items of clothing, veils and other props, shoes are personal.  It’s worth looking for shoes and getting a few pairs for different surfaces and occasions.

Dance shoes must have a flexible sole, enough room to spread your toes, stay on your feet and have the right balance of slip and grip.  For classes indoors, trainers and Crocs aren’t good as they have too much grip and too little flexibility. Toe-post sandals, flip flops and mules are also not good, because they come off the feet quite easily. High heels affect posture and balance and are not appropriate for class.  Although it’s nice to keep your socks on and your feet warm on a cold floor, on some floors they can be dangerously slippery.  You should also avoid shoes with trailing ribbons or tassels, big floppy bows, large buckles which could catch on your other foot or ankle and cause you to trip, and shoes which are so highly decorated or brightly coloured that it’s distracting for anyone watching.

So, with special emphasis on wide feet and with sympathy for those at the other end of the scale with narrow feet, here are some suggestions and links:

Belly Dance Shoes
These have an elasticated topline and lamé fabric or faced leather upper.  Some have hard soles, but a suede sole is better.  Gold and silver are the most common colours, but you can find them in other colours as well. With my wide feet, I have to go up a size, but I also find the pointed (also known as ‘almond’) toe looks strange and am thinking of a way to sew across the upper and sole to produce a rounded toe.  These would look very nice for performance.

Ballet Shoes
These come in leather, canvas and satin and more recently, Spandex, with full or split soles.  Several brands have styles which come in wide fittings; look for Freed, Starlight, Capezio, Sansha, Roch Valley, Katz and Grishko. Some of these do narrow fittings too, or try Bloch.  The different fittings won’t be available in all styles, but you should be able to find some sort of ballet shoe to suit you.

Ballet shoes often come up small, and many shops advise you to take a size larger than your normal shoe size, so check in the details or call the shop for advice.
Part of the problem with wide feet is that although the shoe upper is soft and adjustable enough to take a wider foot, a narrow sole feels uncomfortable, particularly if the ball of your foot rests on the edge of the sole.
I have a pair of black leather full sole Starlights for class, which were quite hard to start with although they’ve softened up now.  They came with the elastic already sewn on, but it was too far back and tight on me, so I replaced it with new black elastic.  Although it matches the shoes, pink or white elastic would be less noticeable and would probably look better.
I noticed that the Bellydance Superstars often perform wearing flesh pink ballet shoes, so I’ve recently bought some pink leather full sole Katz (see photo).  They are very soft and comfy, with slight padding under the heel. (For those who don’t know, the usual way to find where to sew elastics on ballet shoes is to fold the heel up and attach the elastic just forward of the fold. You might want to just safety pin it first and check that it’s comfortable there.  It shouldn’t cut into the front of your ankle.)
I also have a pair of pink Capezio canvas split soles which are a wide fitting, but the toe pad is a bit small for a wide foot.  They are quite comfortable though, especially when my feet are hot.  However, I put these on in one dance studio and it was like wearing ice skates! When the floor is very slippery, you might need something with synthetic soles, like …

‘Ballerina’ Shoes
These have been in fashion for a while, are often quite cheap and are widely available. The downside is that they are generally made of synthetic materials and can get a bit smelly! Some have very pointed ‘almond’ toes, some round toes, so pick a style which matches your foot shape.  They don’t usually come in wider fittings, but it’s worth checking – these are from Store Twenty One, though I had to go up a size as well. Look for ones with flexible soles – some of them have hard, rigid soles.
There are some which are already decorated with sequins and acrylic stones for instant bling, but wide fitting shoes are generally only available in black.  Still, they can easily be decorated with some stick on diamante if you want something flashier.

You could also try other styles of dance shoes, such as jazz shoes, which sometimes come in a metallic finish.

In general, shoes should be flat, but some dancers find that having a low heel can take the strain off sore heels.  In this case, you can try low heeled character shoes or Greek sandals, although I haven’t found any in a wide fitting.

Some dancers prefer not to wear shoes if they can avoid it, and just need some protection for turns.  There is a growing selection of ‘foot thongs’ (look under the ‘lyrical and contemporary’ sections in the online shops). I have tried on the Capezio Sandasoles as they seem very popular with dancers, but couldn’t get them onto my ultra-wide feet properly.  They are suede, so I expect they would stretch, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to get my foot in and stand the tightness to break them in.

Hermes Sandals
The ultimate in flexibility for foot width has to be something you just lace up over your foot. These have a flat heel and suede sole which is just wide enough.  You just slip your foot under the cords, tighten and tie around the ankle. They are light, flexible and cool.  I find they look a bit strange with cabaret style costumes, but they are rightly popular for tribal style dance.  These are from Pedralta.
I find these laces cut in a little if I tie them too tight.  I see the sandals now come with flat cotton laces, which look a like ribbon and can be bought separately.  To size these, they suggest dropping a size from your normal (UK) shoe size. However, they are only going to be offering the sandals in sizes 2-6 in future.  Normal shoe size 7 seems quite a small size for an upper size limit – if you’re larger than that, get in touch with them!

All of the above supposes that you are in a class or performance space indoors.  I have danced in wellies and hiking boots at muddy festivals.  I used an old, worn out pair of ballerina style shoes to dance on wet coir matting in a yurt and flat ankle boots (to give my ankles some support) teaching a short workshop on a grassy slope at a family day out (not something I’m going to do again in a hurry!)  If you are doing a carnival or festival parade, and you’re not riding on a float, you want something which will protect and support your feet.  They may tell you it’s only a mile, but while other parts of the parade are strolling along, you might be doing dance steps and it will feel like a lot further. Wear supportive shoes, trainers or jazz sneakers (again, difficult to find for wide feet) decorated with sequins and stick on diamante stones. (Another idea for parades - if you’re in the UK and especially if you’re in Wales, you can expect it to rain, so take a long umbrella.  Furled up, it can double as a Saiidi stick and maybe it’ll stay sunny all the way!)

I know, most of these shoes contain leather so would not be favourite for some people.  Please feel free to leave comments about your favourite dancing shoes.

These aren't necessarily recommendations, but I made a note of these as sources when I was trawling the web trying to find wide fitting dance shoes, together with a couple of suppliers mentioned above:

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