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Just for dancing

Highlighting the design requirements for shoes worn in very specific dance routines.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © | Gannet77

Many styles of dance call for a specific type of footwear which is often unique to that discipline. Having considered shoes for Ballroom, Latin and Salsa dancing in the article 'Dance Shoes: strictly styled', this article describes footwear for three other diverse dances in order to show the constraints faced by designers.


Ghillie shoes are a type of soft footwear similar to ballet shoes which are worn in Irish, Scottish and Highland dances. They originated as a general tongueless shoe that would dry quickly while keeping the laces tied above the ankle, so away from mud. Ghillies are invariably made from a supple leather in order for them to take the form of the wearer’s foot and most feature laces which criss-cross the top of the foot. Most dancers use such laces, as these are required in competitions, although some styles utilise elastic instead. Some dancers also wrap the laces or elastic around the soles of their feet. Generally, ghillie shoes are full-soled, with leather soles stretching across the entire bottom of the shoe. Some alternatives are split-soled, with a leather sole under the heel and beneath the ball of the foot. While most ghillie shoes are black, versions in red, green, white and other colours are also produced.

Scottish ghillies are worn for Scottish country dancing and Highland dancing. While normally black, they often feature coloured stitching and eyelets. Wearers of Highland ghillies generally need to be able to accommodate thick socks or hose, whereas shoes for Scottish country dancing are worn with thin socks or stockings. Both styles need to offer a snug fit in order to get a good point.

Unlike Scottish ghillies, the Irish dance version rarely features coloured stitching, and they often use leather loops to carry the laces rather than eyelets. Ghillie shoes can also be used for ‘Lyrical dance’, which embodies various aspects of ballet, jazz, acrobatics and modern dance, in addition to other forms of dance.

Dance sneakers

Dance sneakers are 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 similar to trainers (sneakers), they are specially created to support the wearer’s feet while allowing for bending, spinning and other required movements. Dance sneakers are not intended for general use, as they usually do not provide sufficient arch support for everyday wear.

Some dance sneakers feature a very thin and extremely flexible sole under the entire shoe, whereas others are designed with a split sole. This style gives support under the toes and ball of the foot and also beneath the heel. 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.


A dance sneaker with a split sole

Dance sneakers are typically made from canvas (or more expensive versions from leather or suede), and are 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, and smooth spin circles on the sole for quick turns, as well as 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 originated 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.

The characteristics of a tap can vary considerably. As an example, some 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.

Jim Lamberson

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

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 the tonal quality is fixed when adhesive is used.

During the 1930s, tap dance mixed with elements of ‘Lindy Hop’ (a dance that began in 1920s Harlem, New York) to create a new style. Afterwards, when jazz music and tap dance began to decline in the 1950s with the emergence of rock and roll, ‘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.

The photograph at the top of this article shows ghillie shoes being worn in a Highland dance competition.

How can we help?

Please contact SATRA’s footwear team ( to discuss any aspect of footwear design or testing.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 38 of the January 2021 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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