Great questions about dance shoes came in from a student in the UK. Basically the question was, is it better to learn in slick shoes or sticky shoes and further, does this mean you dance differently? I thought I would share my response as a blog post because I think others might find this interesting. And as most of you know, I love talking about shoes.
Great to hear from you and this is a fantastic question.
Firstly, I love shoes. Anyone who knows me or who has seen the documentary “Alive and Kicking” knows that I have numerous pairs of shoes. As a lady and a Follower in Swing dance, I intentionally choose shoes based on fashion and comfort. Meaning, I want to be able to dance at ease and I also want my shoes to match my outfit. I am also fully aware that buying/selling shoes, especially dance shoes, is a business. So I assume there are many arguments out there to push and pull customers into buying certain brands as a way of showing identity, loyalty and style.
Slide or Stick
There are mainly two approaches you can take. Some teachers prefer to dance in sporty, athletic shoes. These shoes are obviously going to have more cushion, maybe more support and in general feel very comfortable. The other choice would be to wear slick, leather sole shoes. Leather sole shoes will probably take longer to break in but they offer the possibility of slides and easy turns. Wearing one or the other will impact the way you move. Oh and let me not forget about high heels! High heels can also have rubber bottoms or leather soles, open or closed toe, and the heel height varies with each style.
If you are going to dance at high tempos, blast through multiple swingouts, redirect strong momentum and maybe even throw aerials*, it makes sense for you to wear athletic shoes with cushion and slight grip on the floor. You have to be light on your feet to keep up with the speed and remain agile with your partner. I could argue that the physical effort needed to pick up your feet and jump around that fast would make for very strong, athletic legs and buttocks. I also think this approach to shoes and movement puts focus on larger muscle groups in order to have explosive energy. Think “Hellzapoppin’” with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. I believe they were all wearing some kind of KED like sneaker.
On the other hand, if the tempos are medium to slow, there is literally more time to add subtle rhythms and interesting variations into the dance. I think this brings more focus to the extremities, the little details and the feet themselves. I like to imagine the articulation of a Tap dancer and all the angles of the foot s/he uses to make sound. Lindy Hoppers may not make as much sound, but our rhythms and foot placement can be similar. Many variations and rhythms are directly taken from familiar Tap steps of the time. “Shuffle Ball Change” can be used in place of a “Kick Ball Change”. Heel-Toe “Crawls” and elegant “Grapevines” which sweep across the floor are easier in slick shoes. When turning, if you have leather soles you can spin on one foot versus having to hop with rubber sole shoes.
When wearing slippery shoes different muscles have to work. You will mostly feel your adductor muscles along your inner thigh working to keep your legs close and your feet underneath you. You may also feel sore in your tibialis anterior (shin muscle) and ankles from working to stabilize your foot. Wearing sticky shoes will exercise again different parts of the leg. Think like a basketball player in defense pushing side to side and pivoting. The quadriceps and the IT band will be used more these actions. You can actually cross train these muscle groups to have well balanced strength in your entire lower body.
When comparing dancers in leather soles to rubber soles, an onlooker may see differences in movement choices and think that the dancers have very different styles. True, and I would also say that high level dancers would and could dance in both types of shoes and adapt accordingly. Most Swing dancers don’t usually limit themselves to one tempo or one style of music. As you said earlier, when a Balboa** song comes on you don’t change shoes. You simply dance in what you’re wearing. So your body learns to adapt. You probably won’t be able to brush your feet along to floor for this Balboa song if you’re wearing sticky shoes. Instead, you pick up your feet, which adds more pulse to your dance. Or if you’re wearing slippery shoes and you want to swingout fast, you will learn to ground yourself and work off of your partner to balance the momentum.
There are basic truths for efficient body movement that should be practiced regardless of your shoe choice. Keeping your feet under your center, using your deep core muscles for stability and smart timing to prepare the body for redirections are all skills that need to be developed. This will make you a better dancer.
Do Shoes Determine Your Style?
It is interesting that your teacher in Barcelona ascribed slick shoes to Dax and sticky shoes to Skye. I think it is far to vague to define these dancers or their shoe choice that simply. If someone defined my dancing by a shoe, I wonder if they would label me a high heel wearer? Would that mean I am a Balboa dancer? What about Pamela’s new line of boots? Is she labeled a certain style based on her shoes or would you say she can do what ever she wants in any shoe? I’m sure both Dax and Skye, being phenomenal dancers, have danced in a variety of shoes and I think they would say their individual styles comes from a far more personal journey than from their shoes.
The kind of shoe you wear will not form your dancer destiny. But it may affect your learning curve. One of your questions was “when should people try out slippery shoes?” I suppose when ever they want. The biggest factor may be what floor are you practicing on? Slippery shoes would be very necessary on marley floor (used for ballet or modern dance) or in a humid room on varnished wood. But if you are dancing outside on dirt or asphalt I would choose the protection of sneakers. The sooner you expose yourself to different scenarios the faster you learn to adapt.
Protect Your Knees
In terms of which shoe is healthier for your knees, first, you have to figure out your own correct alignment and posture. It doesn’t matter which shoes you wear, if your quadriceps are too tight and pulling on your knee caps, your knees will hurt.
I have a story about wearing sticky shoes while trying to swivel. It did not go well and my knees really hurt at the end of the night. I was fighting against so much friction but I didn’t realize it as a young, inexperienced dancer. I eventually chromed*** my puma sneakers (which gave me the best of both worlds) but the most important lesson I learned was to swivel from my hips and use larger muscles instead of my knees.
Which shoes are best for learning?
So which pair of shoes is best for learning? I would tell a beginner to find a shoe that is comfortable, that will not distract them while dancing and that won’t fall off. If you think about it, that really covers the bases. I also like what your teacher said about wearing similar shoes to the instructor. This is great advice. If the teacher is demonstrating dance moves in a certain type of shoe, then at least you know it is possible to dance like them wearing those types of shoes. And perhaps asking yourself how they use their body to perform those moves while wearing those shoes will trigger new insights. This would be really useful while watching a teacher in slick shoes do slides and spins and a Follow who dances in heels.
Unfortunately there is no perfect answer for which shoes work best. Your environment, partner, music, experience, even outfit will affect your shoe choice every time. It is smart to pack two pairs of shoes. And it’s OK if your preference changes overtime. When I was learning, I always said I wanted to be able to dance in any shoe out there. Of course this was mostly to satisfy my fashion fever but in the end, being open to different shoes helped me be a stronger dancer.