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Dance shoes: strictly styled

From novice to professional, most people who take part in ballroom dancing will need to buy at least one pair of specialist shoes. This article considers the performance footwear required.

by Lynne Fenyk

Image © iStockphoto/Avid Creative, Inc.

Ballroom, Latin and Salsa dancing has gained popularity worldwide in recent years since celebrity dance competitions have hit our television screens. Dancing is now seen as a mainstream leisure activity, with men, women and children of all ages taking to the dance floor.

There are a considerable number of differences between ‘everyday’ footwear that is worn in the street and dance shoes. Since both comfort and fit are paramount requirements for dance shoes, the upper and soling materials must be light, soft and flexible.

Soles and top pieces

A woman’s dance shoe with a chrome-tanned suede split sole

The shoes worn in ballrooms are very lightweight, and the main difference from street shoes is in the choice of soling material. Ballroom shoes are generally produced with a suede (chrome-tanned leather split) sole which is very flexible and enables the dancer to feel the floor through the shoe bottom. The top pieces for Cuban and slender heels are usually also made of leather. Appropriate traction of the sole is essential, and it is for this reason that chrome suede is the preferred choice. Overall, soles should allow the dancers to pivot freely, to avoid knee damage, but prevent them from slipping and falling. This enables them to better ‘glide’ over the dance floor.

Of course, suede soles will not offer any significant durability. However, as they are intended to only be worn on smooth dance floors, this is not generally an issue. It may, though, be worthwhile if the manufacturer or retailer attaches a swing-tag to this effect, as the inexperienced dancer may not realise the importance of keeping the sole clean. Even stepping in a puddle of liquid will significantly affect the performance of the sole.

Adequate sole adhesion is an essential property in order to prevent any sole bond failures and the possibility of tripping accidents. The soles will need to be roughed prior to the application of two coats of adhesive to achieve good bond strengths. Solvent- or water-based polyurethane systems are recommended for this type of material.

Insoles

Forepart insoles should be thin and flexible, and have low torsional stiffness. This will enable the wearers to dance on their toes while allowing adequate movement in the foot. This is particularly important for the Latin and Salsa styles of dance.

Underfoot cushioning in the forepart is also important for comfort. It needs to be sufficient to provide protection to the ball of the foot, as the majority of dancing is carried out with all the weight on the forepart. Nevertheless, if it is too thick or gives too much of a cushioning effect, the wearers’ proprioception (spatial awareness and feel for the floor) will be affected.

Fit

Women 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. To compensate for this reduction in length, the joint girths may be increased by one fitting (6.35mm) to accommodate a foot assumed to be of average dimensions.

Uppers

The upper material generally used for women’s competition shoes is a satin weave in polyester, 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 variety of colours to match or complement the dresses worn during competitive dances.

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

As mentioned earlier, satisfactory sole bonding is essential. 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 bond. For grain leather uppers, the usual rule of roughing to remove the finish and grain layer before cementing applies.

Patent leathers should have the polyurethane (PU) film removed by roughing or scouring to within 3mm of the sole edge. Any grains present should also be removed.

Satisfactory sole bonding – often requiring roughing – is particularly imortant for ballroom dance shoes

Heel attachment and backpart construction

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 during some dance movements.

SATRA strongly advises that the heel attachment and backpart construction are fully evaluated, to ensure that it is of premium quality and will not deteriorate in wear. We recommend that our most stringent performance guidelines are met in this respect.

Security on the foot

It is essential that the footwear is 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 for this demanding application.

In summary

The performance requirements of dance shoes should never be underestimated. Although they appear to be lightweight, delicate, occasional-wear items, 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 standards.

How can we help?

Please email SATRA’s footwear testing team (footwear@satra.com) for help with the assessment of dance shoes.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 50 of the September 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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