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A growing demand for dance shoes?

Investigating different footwear worn by dancers who participate in a number of popular dance forms.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © | maodesign

At the time of a 2014 report into the popularity of dancing in the UK, the activity was engaged in regularly by some 10 per cent of the population there. More than 4.8 million people in the country were said to participate in dance classes each year.

As well as participating in dance, there are numerous opportunities to watch it as a member of an audience. Dance is claimed to be the fastest growing art form, with over 13 per cent of the UK's population said to attend performances or watch them on television, with shows such as ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ regularly pulling in close to 11 million viewers.

There are an estimated 200 dance schools in the UK. Many local gyms also hold dance activities, including 'Zumba' classes – a dance fitness programme created by Colombian dancer and choreographer Alberto 'Beto' Perez in the 1990s. Dance is part of the national educational curriculum in the UK, and the subject can be studied at further education and degree level. There is even a dedicated dance exhibition – called 'Move It' – held annually in London, which features stands selling dancewear and accessories, as well as experts offering advice and information on dance classes and career opportunities. Even the UK's National Health Service offers dance-specific health advice and support services through the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science.

In New Zealand, DANZ (Dance Aotearoa New Zealand) estimates that more than 630,000 New Zealanders of all backgrounds, abilities and ages dance regularly, and the organisation claims that this is more than the combined number of people who play rugby and netball around the country.

Reports suggest that since 'Dancing with the Stars' launched on television in New Zealand, some adult dance classes for beginners drew as many as 70 participants, with an increasing number of male participants. Of course, dance is also very popular with children, with more than 80,000 young people reportedly learning in dance studios across the country.

Image © craftvision

Reports suggest that dance classes and competitions are growing in popularity around the world

In the USA, the popularity of dance-inspired television shows and rising interest in dance as an alternative form of exercise is said to have positively impacted the dance studios industry in recent years. In particular, dance studios offering Latin-inspired, fitness, fusion and ballroom dance classes have reportedly benefited from rising consumer demand. Instructional classes teach a variety of dance disciplines, including ballroom dancing, ballet, hip-hop and modern dance, among others. Current industry statistics suggest that in the USA alone, revenue from dance schools stands at almost $3 billion, which represents an annual growth between 2011 and 2016 of 2.5 per cent. There are said to be 66,614 dance-related businesses employing over 115,000 people in the USA alone.

As in other countries, ballroom dancing in the USA is no longer viewed as a pastime reserved for retired people or newly-weds who want to shine on their big day. It is said to be enjoying its biggest resurgence since the 1940s – as a fresh and fun way to get fit, a creative outlet, a way to socialise or an opportunity to engage in competition. Hundreds of dance competitions are held around the USA for both professionals and amateurs. The National Dance Council of America has 17 member organisations with more than 20,000 dance professionals and over 110 sanctioned competitions.

Other countries around the world are reporting a similar growth in dance participation.

The shoes

As the foregoing indicates, dance is a very popular pastime, which has its own demands – not least of all on the footwear required.

There are many differences between everyday (street) footwear and dance shoes. Since comfort and fit are paramount for dance shoes, the upper and soling materials must be light, soft and flexible. This article will focus on footwear worn for a few of the many forms of dance enjoyed by participants around the world.

Ballroom dance shoes

At its most liberal definition, ballroom dancing may refer to almost any type of partner dance enjoyed as recreation. However, with the emergence of competitive ballroom dancing ('dancesport'), the term normally refers to five international standard dances (Foxtrot, Quickstep, Tango, Viennese Waltz and Waltz) and the same number of international Latin-style dances (Cha-cha-cha, Jive, Paso Doble, Rumba and Samba).


A shoe with a chrome-tanned suede split sole

Ballroom dance shoes are very light in weight and differ from street shoes particularly in the selection of soling material. The soles on ballroom shoes should allow the dancer to pivot freely in order to avoid knee damage and to 'glide' over the dance floor, while at the same time preventing slips and falls. Sole traction to the appropriate degree is therefore essential and, for this reason, chrome suede is the preferred choice. Chrome-tanned suede soles are also very flexible and enable the dancers to ‘feel’ the floor. In addition, top pieces for Cuban and slender heels are usually made of leather.

Suede soles will not, of course, offer any significant durability. However, as ballroom shoes are intended to be worn only on smooth dance floors, this is not generally an issue. Nevertheless, it may be appropriate for a swing-tag explaining this characteristic to be attached to the product at the point of sale, as the inexperienced dancer may not realise the importance of keeping the sole clean and dry.

As with all other examples of footwear, adequate sole adhesion is essential to prevent sole bond failures and consequent tripping accidents. This can only be achieved by the manufacturer ensuring that care is taken over the preparation and adhesion processes.

The forepart insoles should be thin and flexible and have low torsional stiffness. This will enable the wearer to dance on his or her toes while allowing adequate movement in the foot. This is particularly important for Latin and Salsa styles of dance.

Underfoot cushioning in the forepart is also key for comfort. Such cushioning must be sufficient to protect the ball of the foot, as most ballroom dancing places all the weight on the forepart. However, the materials chosen should not be too thick or provide too much cushioning effect, as this will affect the wearer’s 'proprioception' (spatial awareness and feel for the floor).

Women will often select their dance shoes, particularly open toe styles, one size smaller than their everyday footwear to ensure maximum control underfoot and to reduce the risk of tripping. Consequently, joint girths may be intentionally produced one fitting larger for the insole length so that the shoe can accommodate a foot of average dimensions.

The upper material generally used for women’s competition shoes is a polyester satin weave which usually has good abrasion properties. Viscose satins will not perform as well. The satin weave gives a luxurious appearance and enables the shoes to be easily dyed in a wide array of colours to match or complement the wearer’s competition dresses.


Women’s practice shoes are generally made from soft full grain leather

Since satin weave materials are often very absorbent, it is best to use two coats of adhesive on the lasting margin. In some instances, a light scour of the satin may also be necessary to achieve a satisfactory sole bond. For leather uppers, the usual rule of roughing to remove the finish and grain layer before cementing applies.

Women’s practice shoes and men’s dance footwear are generally made from very soft full grain leathers – typically kid or sheep. Men’s competition footwear is often made from patent leather which needs careful treatment both during manufacture and in wear.

Although durability is not such an important issue for some dance footwear components, safety-critical properties should never be compromised. For example, the heel attachment and backpart construction must be of the highest standard due to the high stresses and strains in some dance movements.


Strap configuration ensures that the footwear is securely attached to the foot

It is essential that the footwear be securely fitted to the foot to avoid any accidents when dancing. In the case of court shoe styles, the stiffeners are generally long, giving a good clip onto the dancer’s foot. For sandal styles, it is imperative that the straps and buckles have adequate strength and are properly positioned for this demanding application.

The performance requirements of dance shoes should never be underestimated. Although they appear to be a lightweight, delicate, occasional-wear item, they are likely to receive much more rigorous, demanding wear in many respects than most outdoor fashion footwear. To avoid costly returns (and even litigation), it is essential that all safety-critical properties are tested to the highest standard. SATRA strongly advises that the heel attachment and backpart construction are fully evaluated to ensure that they are of premium quality and will not deteriorate in wear. We recommend that our most stringent performance guidelines are met in this respect.

Dance sneakers

Dance sneakers are a style of footwear designed for street dance, hip-hop, break dancing (called 'breaking', 'b-boying' or 'b-girling' by its adherents) and some other types of dance. While looking very much like sneakers (trainers), they are specially designed to support the feet while allowing for bending, spinning, and the movements required in dancing. Dance sneakers are worn only for dancing, not being intended for general use, as they usually do not provide sufficient arch support for everyday wear.

While some dance sneakers feature a very thin and extremely flexible sole under the entire shoe, other versions are designed with a split sole. This gives support in the front (under the toes and ball of the foot) and also at the back, beneath the heel of the foot. There is no sole under the arch in the middle of the foot, with this separation between the front and rear soles allowing the foot to bend more freely when the wearer is dancing. Some dance sneakers feature straps along the side of the shoe to provide a level of support to the arch.

Image © Bloch

Some dance sneakers feature a split sole

Dance sneakers are typically of canvas (or more expensive leather or suede), and fastened by laces. The style and features of the shoe vary according to the type of dance for which it is intended. In order to meet the dancer’s demands for flexibility and comfort, shoe designers often employ lightweight materials and mesh upper to provide a combination of good breathability with comfort, smooth spin circles on the sole for quick turns, and finger notches in the heels to help with partner lifts.

Tap dance shoes

Modern rhythm tap dancing is characterised by the tapping sounds created by metal 'taps' on the heel and toe when the shoes strike the floor. Tap dance is believed to have begun in the mid-1800s during the rise of minstrel shows. As these performances began to decline in popularity, tap dance moved to the increasingly popular Vaudeville stage – a type of entertainment popular primarily in the USA and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s, that featured a mixture of acts, including burlesque comedy, and song and dance.

Image © Jim Lamberson

A tap dance shoe, showing the metal taps at heel and toe

The characteristics of a tap can vary considerably. As an example, some taps are relatively light in weight and have a small footprint, while others may be thicker and fill out the edge of the shoe more, making them heavier. Both the tap’s weight and its surface shape will influence its tonal quality, as will the material from which it is made.

Taps are generally mounted to the sole of the shoe with screws, and sometimes also adhesive. The screws are driven into a 'soundboard' – a thin sheet of fibreboard that is integrated into the sole and which is firmly gripped by the screws. If no adhesive is used, different sounds can be produced by loosening or tightening the screws, whereas tonal quality is fixed when adhesive is used.

During the 1930s, tap dance mixed with Lindy Hop (a partner dance that originated in 1920s Harlem, New York) to create a new style. Then, when jazz music and tap dance began to decline in the 1950s with the emergence of rock and roll, a new jazz dance evolved separately from tap dance to become a new form in its own right. Jazz dance has a shoe of its own, which is also worn in acro dance (a combination of classical dance techniques and precision acrobatic elements), acrobatic roll'n'roll (a very athletic, competitive and choreographed form of dance designed for performance) and other activities, such as aerobics. Jazz shoes are made in a variety of styles (such as slip-ons or Oxfords) and may have split-soles to enhance flexibility. Most are rubber soled to provide traction cushioning the foot, and some feature a suede patch under the ball of the foot to assist with turning.

Image © Jim Lamberson

The shoes worn for jazz dance and acro dance have the same basic requirements

Meeting the demand

The space available for this article does not allow for an in-depth consideration of every style of dance that uses a specialist type of shoe – for example, the very specific footwear worn by ballet dancers will be considered in a future article. What this investigation indicates, however, is that dance – in all its many and varied forms – is an incredibly popular activity which may well offer an opportunity for shoemakers around the world.

How can we help?

Please email SATRA’s footwear testing team ( for help with the assessment of all types of shoes and materials.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 42 of the December 2016 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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