Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
When you're a complete beginner at ballroom dance, it's understandable if you're reluctant to buy proper dancing shoes. Why invest the money until you are sure you'll take it up seriously? However, bear in mind that if your shoes are very unsuited to dancing, it affects how much you enjoy the dance as well as how well you can do it. So if you're struggling in class, you may find that buying a basic pair of shoes could transform your experience.
Ballroom and Latin Dance Shoes Are Smooth and Secure
Ballroom and Latin dances require you to swivel on the balls of your feet. If your shoes have patterned rubber soles, they'll be inclined to stick to the floor and prevent you from turning. That will make it hard for you to get the “feel” of the movement—and it can also damage your knees because your legs will be trying to swivel while your feet can't! If your knees twist, you may tear your cartilage. So if you must wear street shoes for dancing, at least choose something with a smooth, flat sole.
They also MUST have a secure fastening—for men, lace-ups are best; for ladies, lace-ups, a T-bar, or ankle strap.
Female professionals do wear court shoes for ballroom dancing, but don't try it when you are a newbie, because there are three potential problems with wearing shoes you can slip your feet out of.
- If you are subconsciously holding the shoes on, your feet are not relaxed and can't flex properly.
- If the shoes are so tight they can't fall off, your toes will be squashed, and you won't have a solid "platform" to balance on.
- Your feet may actually slip out of your shoes while you're dancing!
You Need a Heel!
For ladies, don't wear a flat shoe. Dancing in heels feels very different from dancing on the flat, and you need to get used to it from the start. In Latin dance, a heel is essential to get the right posture: you need to be leaning slightly towards your partner, and a heel will help you achieve that. Proper Latin shoes have a subtle forward pitch to help you.
Start with a small- to mid-sized heel, and closed-in toes to protect you from clumsy partners! Professionals often wear high strappy open-toed sandals, but it takes experience and good balance to dance in those—be patient and wait until you've built up your confidence and core strength.
When you're starting out, you can get away with one pair of shoes to wear for both Latin and ballroom. If you're going to do that, make it a Latin shoe, not a ballroom shoe. A ballroom shoe will be too rigid to dance Latin well, whereas you can dance ballroom in a Latin shoe. Save the satin ballroom shoe for when you're ready to take dancing more seriously!
The Slippery Subject of Soles
In most other dance genres, the soles of shoes are made of rubber or composite material. Hip-hoppers, ballerinas, and Broadway hoofers all spin and twirl happily in their shoes—but for some reason, ballroom and Latin teachers think you can't point your toes or pirouette unless the soles of your shoes are made of suede.
When I started learning ballroom, I found suede soles quite terrifying—because, on the wrong kind of floor, it can be like walking on ice!
On a properly-maintained ballroom floor, suede-soled shoes are perfect. They give just the right amount of traction, so you can spin and turn easily, but you feel secure when running and hopping. However, beginners are often learning in a church or school hall where the teacher has no control over the condition of the surface. If the floor is not perfectly clean or has been treated with waxy cleaners, the suede collects all the gunk, and it quickly forms a glassy surface that's treacherous to dance on. I've attended dances where I've had to clean my shoes three or four times in the course of the evening.
Another problem with suede soles is that they're delicate. To keep them in good condition, you wear them on the dance floor and nowhere else. I don't mind carrying my dance shoes to class, but it's a nuisance to have to carry a big shoe bag when I'm going to a ball or social event.
That's why my own personal view is that a smooth composite sole is a sensible, go-anywhere choice for a beginner, and much more practical than suede. They are less likely to get slippery on unknown floor surfaces. You can dance on any surface without fear of damaging them, so you can wear them to and from class, too. And if you decide not to continue dance classes, they're fine for streetwear. You'll find composite soles on lace-up practice shoes, heeled jazz shoes, Broadway shoes, and character shoes.
Caring for a Suede Sole
If you do buy shoes with suede soles, it's vitally important to clean them after every single wear. If you don't, dirt will build up very quickly, the soles will lose all grip, and you'll be at great risk of falling.
To clean the soles, you'll need a brush—and I don't mean the kind of suede brush you buy to clean a suede jacket or handbag. You need something much harder. Most dance stores sell wire brushes designed especially for dance shoes. The video below demonstrates how to use the brush.
Caution: Always keep your brush in its case. I've seen some nasty injuries when someone reaches into their bag for their shoes and finds an unguarded wire brush instead! Also, be careful not to catch the sides of the shoe when brushing the sole—you can rip holes in the leather all too easily.
Why Street Shoes Aren't Suitable for Dancing
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on September 29, 2015:
Good idea - the trouble is that many people aren't used to being on demi-pointe, so they get tired fairly quickly.
Anya Brodech from 130 Linden St, Oakland, California, 94607 on September 28, 2015:
I agree with you, having the right shoes is super important for dancing! My beginner female students who come in wearing flat shoes often have difficulty getting the correct ball-flat action for Latin and salsa, so I tell them to dance on the balls of their feet and to keep their heels off of the ground, so it mimics the feet of wearing high-heeled shoes.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on September 19, 2015:
Nowadays I confess, I do have suede soles - but I didn't feel comfortable in them for years, and used to take my ballroom shoes to be resoled every time!
drbj and sherry from south Florida on September 19, 2015:
I'm not so sure about those suede soles for me in dancing shoes, m'dear. I would be far more comfortable in the composite version. Thanks for the dance shoes heads-up.