Cheap Dance Shoe FAQ

Contributors to the Cheap Dance Shoe FAQ include:

Mark Balzer
Enio Cordoba
Ann Detsch
Stan Graves
Robinne Gray
Kara Kruse
Bart McJunkin
Ken Navarre
Karen White
Sandra Lee Wollin
Lester-J Wood

Table of Contents:

Why cheap dance shoes?
Jazz shoes
Character shoes
Athletic shoes
Bowling shoes
Attaching chrome leather (suede) soles

Why cheap dance shoes?

Ballroom dance shoes are special shoes built with flexible uppers and lowers, a metal tang in the arch for support and chrome leather (suede) soles. They come in different styles suited for smooth or latin dancing, and typically cost in excess of $90. The soles are quickly ruined if worn outdoors.

While men can dance in well-fitting dress shoes with a smooth leather sole, you're still shelling out $75 or more, and many of them are overly stiff and heavy. The stiffness makes it hard to flex your foot, and will eventually cause the leather to crack and split at the points where all the flexing becomes concentrated. This will, of course, ruin your dress shoes.

So what are your options? Here are a few for us penny-pinchers:

Jazz shoes

Jazz shoes are made for jazz & modern dance. Relatively inexpensive ($25 and up) they can be purchased with rubber soles, chrome leather (suede) soles, chrome leather soles with rubber heel, and in "split soles" for the ultimate in flexibility. However, jazz shoes are not ideal for a long night of dancing. They're flimsy (no tang for arch support), flat (heel heights are about 1/4"), have little to no cushioning and the thin uppers offer almost no lateral support.

At first, Jazz shoes seem very comfortable because they're so supple, but they offer NO support--it's like being barefoot but with a small bit of extra protection. Whether they work for you or not depends on whether you need arch support. They are a reasonable choice to start out with - cheap and good for balance. But, after I started dancing 3-4 hours at a stretch, I found I need the arch support, and abandoned the jazz flats.

To give them more support, you can buy jazz shoes that are slightly bigger than your foot and then insert "athletic" insoles which have a molded heel cup and arch support. You can even add a cushioned insole under the athletic insole. This adds a lot to the comfort of the shoes without detracting from the flexibility. You would not believe the difference insoles can make in comfort over an evening of continuous dancing or spending the whole day on your feet for that matter. When using this approach with any shoe, it's best to buy the insoles first and take them with you while getting fitted.

When I first started dancing I swore I would not be railroaded into wearing heels, so I bought Jazz shoes. For dances with a lot of flat to ball steps, I find heels much easier to dance in - you're already halfway to your ball, so it's less work for your calves. After I took a Viennese Waltz class in Jazz flats, my calves were sore for two days. I also find the forward pitch of heels puts your balance forward and makes it easier to be prepared to step in any direction. I was rather shocked to find that heels were easier to dance in as I don't generally wear heels at all.

PS - did you ever realize that wrestling shoes are really split sole Jazz boots in disguise? :-)

Character shoes

Character shoes are those generic women's dance shoes that have a single strap, a fairly rounded closed toe, and a low, sturdy heel. They come in black, red, taupe and white (useful if you want to dye them to match costumes - they tend to hold up longer than the little satin shoes do). You can also get them in a t-strap. Character shoes almost always come with hard, sole-leather soles. They are named for their use in musical theatre by actors/actresses performing "in character". They are also used by tap-dancers who attach metal taps to them. Women's versions don't look quite as classy as ballroom shoes (someone once posted that "they make womens' feet look clunky"), but they're far sturdier. They feature a Cuban heel - a low (1 or 1.5 inch) heel that is wide and sturdy, unlike a spike/stiletto heel. Cuban heels are good for people who are trying to dance in heels for the first time, not only because of the lower height, but because of the greater surface area where the heel meets the floor. I like the stronger heel, the weight and durability of the sole, the toe room. They take a lot of scuffing and abuse, but I just polish them and keep dancing. My ballroom shoes feel so dainty and fragile, and when they get scuffed or nicked it's painful because they cost so damn much.

Although conventional wisdom holds that one should never wear one's dance shoes on the street, I find that leather soles perform better if they've been "seasoned" by a bit of regular street wear. That's the only way they really become like an extension of my feet. Then I make sure to wipe the soles well to remove pebbles & dust before setting foot on a nice wooden dance floor. The more you wear a pair of character shoes, the softer they become!

Capezio makes a number of styles of character shoes for men (K-370 is a very comfortable man's shoe) and women. The women's shoes are available in different heel heights, with an ankle strap available on the low heel versions and a T-strap available in the 'higher' heel (2 1/2 inch) shoes.

For beginner dancers, the slippery hard leather soles of character shoes make them a dangerous choice on a real maple floor. Remember - character shoes are primarily used in the industry by stage dancers who do tap or jazz on plywood stage floors. However, they are great for dancing in clubs: you can put them on in the car, walk in wearing them (no need for shoe bags), dance, and leave without having to worry about sidewalks, spilled drinks and dirty dance floors that would ruin suede-soled dance shoes.

Men's character shoes

I recently ordered a pair of men's character (or tap) dance shoes which I am really pleased with and I thought I'd share the info. They are:

made in USA
black, lace-up oxford style
thin, soft leather uppers
thin, sole-leather soles
very flexible, very comfortable
available in half sizes
available in medium and wide widths
built with a metal tang for arch support
and best of all, only $36.50 !!!!! (that is not a misprint - $36.50!)

These shoes are a generic but otherwise identical copy of Capezio #441 shoes which normally sell for $60. They are perfect for night club dancing in those clubs where you wouldn't want to wear "suede" soled dance shoes. In addition, they are fine for street use too, so you can wear them to and from the club, without having to lug around a shoe bag. Best of all they are only $36.50.

Order them from Kinney Dancewear in Indianapolis. Their phone number is 1-800-93-DANCE. The stock number of the shoe described above is K-401. You may bond chrome leather (suede) soles to them, as described in a following section.

Women's character shoes

My favorite character shoe is one that I order out of a catalog. It's called a "flexible character shoe" and has a low heel (tapered, not a clunky-looking "Cuban-style" heel), ankle strap, and a suede sole. They're quite soft, pliable, and comfortable (fit like the proverbial glove). Here's the info:

Flexible Character Shoe:
All leather, 1 1/2" heel
Soft flexible suede sole
Ankle strap
Medium width only
Sizes: Women's 4-10
Colors:
506B Black
506T Tan
Price: $37.00 (U.S.)

Manufacturer: Danstar Dance Shoes

The company recommends ordering these shoes one size below your street shoe size (the representative on the phone can help to size you correctly). When I slip a pair of Dr. Scholl's cushioned insoles inside, I can literally dance all night in these shoes.

Athletic shoes

Most of the English & European women wear athletic shoes for dancing Lindy-Hop. The layers of foam in modern athletic shoes really cushion your feet so that you can dance all night without discomfort. But unfortunately, you can't spin without killing your knees. Athletic shoes grip the floor too well and if you try and dance in them you run the risk of ruining your knees in spins and turns (knees are hinge joints and are not built to withstand the high levels of torsion along the axis of your leg which rotating and spinning in sneakers can produce). A top pro writes: "Many people have reported knee problems yet don't correlate the problem to the shoes. On a couple ocassions I taught in tennis shoes and my knees got beat up so bad I had to ice them."

To prevent knee injuries from occurring, you can take your athletic shoes to a cobbler and have chrome-leather (suede) soles (like on real dance shoes) bonded on, and that typically costs an extra $30. For you do-it-yourselfers, one of the best solutions that I've found over the years is to get a comfortable pair of athletic shoes that offer excellent support and then glue on chrome leather (suede) soles yourself, as described in a following section.

You can do much better than bowling shoes by gluing chrome leather (suede) soles on to athletic shoes (tennis, basketball or "court" sneakers are the most flexible styles), or to a flexible pair of walking shoes (though not cheap, the SAS brand is more flexible than most). If you often dance for 4, 5, 6 or more hours at Swing events, you will be thankful for the cushioning that these kind of shoes provide. However - they are not great for extreme inside edge work (tango progressive side step) because of the sole design. Walking shoes are built on much straighter lasts than most shoes (why are all dance shoes made with curved lasts?) and as a result they are much more comfortable and don't crowd your toes.

Capezio DanSneakers - (A bit pricy for the "Cheap Dance Shoe FAQ, but we'll include them here for now. Does anyone have a better description of these?) People have written: "For flats I wear the Capezio DanSneakers I recently acquired. The DanSneakers are great for Lindy and I highly recommend them. Don't pay $80 in a store like I did - you can get them via mail order for $60." and "Anyone actually _worn_ the Capezio dance sneakers? they felt to me like they had no arch support in them when I picked them up."

Nike "Aqua-Turf" - The $30 version of the $150 "Donnie Burns" Latin shoes designed with the foot hugging elastic upper and no laces :-) The Aqua-turf is a featherweight shoe for surfing and water skiing. Designed to dry out when wet, they have a thin elastic upper that is totally breathable. If your feet sweat a lot, these are the shoes for you! My feet, normally damp in regular shoes, stay completely dry in the Aqua-Turfs. The elastic upper fits snugly without crushing your toes or requiring a break-in period. They are as comfortable as a pair of slippers from day one. The flexible rubber footbed has molded-in lateral supports for the ball of your foot, a molded in heel cup, and a sewn-in "heel counter" to further stabilize and locate your heel. The lower is almost as flexible as a jazz shoe (you can point your toe) but has much more cushioning, so you can dance all night without pain. I only saw them in one color combination: dark grey + black. That's good enough for me. I bought 2 pairs, and with thin Dr. Scholl's insoles installed I have been wearing a pair as street shoes for months. I cannot say enough good things about these shoes. I'd love to meet the person who designed them, just to shake his hand and thank him. I llllloooooooooovvvvvvveeeeee 'em! To use them as dance shoes, grind off the tread blocks and bond on suede soles, as described in a following section.

1997 - Bad news - Nike "Aqua-Turf" shoes are no longer being made :-( Good news - cheaper versions are available from other manufacturers, but unfortunately they don't have all the features of the Nike "Aqua-Turf."

Bowling shoes

The guys in Ithaca have found a clever solution to the cheap dance shoe problem: bowling shoes. Not the ugly ones you can rent from bowling alleys, but nice modern ones you can order from bowling pro shops or catalogs. They look like athletic shoes, but have suede soles!

Expensive bowling shoe soles have hard rubber soles with a partial chrome leather (suede) attachment on the left shoe for right hand bowlers (and vice-versa) to enable sliding during the release. However, bowling alley pro shops sell shoes that are 'neutral' and have the chrome leather (suede) sole on both shoes, so they can be used by lefties or righties. These shoes have a non-skid heel. Bowling pro shops carry several brand names, and the price seemed to be around $35 a pair for all of them.

I got a pair of bowling shoes from a local bowling alley, and I love them. Because they are so comfortable and provide good protection if your foot gets stepped upon, I use them for dance practices and workshops. There is chrome leather (suede) on both shoes covering the entire ball of the foot. They do have a non-skid heel so they are not good for waltzing (makes heel leads difficult), but they are great for two step, ECS, WCS, etc. (Of course, you can bond on chrome leather (suede) over the rubber heels yourself, as described in a following section.) My pair cost about $35; they are very lightweight, and are as "stylish" as any other pair of athletic shoes. My former partner has fallen arches so he inserted arch supports in his bowling shoes and found them to be extremely comfortable as well as good support for his feet.

"One final note: in trying on various brands, I found that some of the more expensive shoes were stiffer and heavier while some of the less expensive ones, although not quite as durable, were much lighter and more flexible. I opted for a less expensive, more flexible brand and have been quite happy with my choice."

"I recently tried on two different pairs of Brunswick bowling shoes, (both pairs under $36.00) and I found them to be a rather stiff compared to a tennis, basketball or "court" sneaker, and I was disappointed with the slippery synthetic felt - VERY fast - that they used for the sole under the ball of the foot."

"I have the Dexter bowling shoes with glued-on chrome leather (rather than stitched-on), and I love them. Before buying them, I tried on some Brunswicks at K-Mart and found them to be way too stiff. My Dexters are very flexible and comfortable. I ended up gluing some chrome leather to the heels mainly to make the heel leads in waltz a little easier (the rubber heels skidded on the floor too much). My pair of Dexters cost between $30 and $35 -- definitely a smart purchase. I use them a lot for practices, lessons, and workshops."

Here are some reviews: "I danced in my new bowling shoes last night. They work great! The suede is faster than my ballroom shoes, so turns were easier, but the moment you put your heel down, you're anchored."

"This past weekend I was at a Swing event and the floor was very slow. I had a really difficult time spinning in my good, expensive dance shoes, but my $30 Dexter bowling shoes (with suede heels glued on) were just right on this floor. And I was able to dance all night because they were so comfortable."

Attaching chrome leather (suede) soles

As recommended in "The Ballroom Dance Pack" by world champion latin dancer Walter Laird, you can bond "suede" or chrome-tanned leather soles over the harder, vegetable-tanned shoe-sole leather found on what we normally refer to as "leather-soled shoes" (street shoes, character shoes, etc). In addition, I have bonded a pair of "suede" soles on to a pair of tennis shoes, and am very pleased with the results. For social dance shoes I used to have several pair of Gucci shoes (use to work there- got $365 shoes for $50). Nothing is more comfortable. Unfortunately the leather is so soft it can't withstand much abuse. You're better off going to Payless Shoes, getting a flexible $16 pair and putting the $10 chrome leather sole on. For a "social" dancer this is usually sufficient. For a top level dancer, many dress shoes don't have enough lateral support to do multiple turns safely. Women with wide toes and narrow heels may find Easy Spirit brand split last shoes (C width toe, B width heel) worth investigating.

What dancers call "suede" is actually "sueded leather." (Real suede is leather made from the skins of kids (young goats). I have heard that dance shoe soles are actually made from horse hide, but this may be urban legend - if anyone knows for sure, please email me at m-balzer@uiuc.edu). Dance shoe soles are also called "chrome leather soles" to differentiate them from the "vegetable tanned leather soles" that we are commonly found on street shoes and character shoes. The chrome tanning process alone doesn't produce sueded leather however... for instance, the uppers on your shoes are also chrome leather, and they're not (generally) sueded (though Enio does have that cool blue pair... :-)

Cobblers are not dancers. The last time I let a cobbler use his own suede stock, I got lousy suede. To prevent this from happening, buy your suede from a dance shoe company. Excellent quality Freed brand (made in England) chrome leather (suede) dance shoe soles are available for only $7 a pair from Kinney Dancewear in Indianapolis. Their phone number is 1-800-93-DANCE. They come in white or dyed black. Order them in the largest man's size available. After you bond them on and the adhesive is dry, trim them to size with a razor blade.

Cobblers use rubberized contact cement to attach shoe soles to shoes. You too can purchase this rubberized contact cement, which works fabulously! The adhesive is "Barge All Purpose Cement", made by the Quabaug Corp, North Brookfield, MA 01535. It comes in 2 oz. tubes and is sold in shoe sections of big stores.

The rubberized adhesive "Shoe Goo" was good for gluing on dance shoe soles. However, that product has now been replaced by "Shoe Goo II" which is thicker and doesn't seem to work as well for this purpose as the original Shoe Goo. Shoe Goo II, distributed by Second Wind Co., Paso Robles, Ca., 93447-2300, can be purchased at Kmart, Walmart, or even hobby and sporting goods stores for approximately $3 a tube. Each 3.7 oz. tube is enough for a couple pairs of shoes. But try to get the Barge All Purpose Cement mentioned above - you'll be much happier. It's *MUCH* easier to use than Shoe Goo, and dries almost instantly as opposed to the 24 hours that Shoe Goo requires.

When boding chrome leather (suede) soles onto athletic shoes with very aggressive sole patterns, you must grind the tread down before gluing the suede on. I used a 7" disk sander (though a belt sander would work fine) with a 24 grit sanding disk to grind down the tread on the pair of shoes I bonded the suede to. Make sure you use very coarse grit sanding disk (or belt) or you will just end up making a lot of heat and melting the rubber.

In use, chrome leather (suede) soles glaze over with the dirt and wax they pick up from the floor, so you must occasionally clean them with a wire brush, as you do for regular suede soled dance shoes. Brushing raises the nap on the soles and removes any debris that may have accumulated. You do not have to do it to excess and it should always be done over the nearest waste recepticle (NOT in the aisles or other high traffic areas where you and your partners are sure to step right into the debris you removed.) If you don't have a special wire brush made for shoes, buy a "file comb" at any hardware store.

A small amount of oil, such as Castor Oil will also help raise the nap on the soles. Do a bit of brushing after the oil is well absorbed. The Castor oil will also help to stop you from sliding on a very slick floor.

If they get really greasy and dirty, put you shoes in the freezer for an hour. This solidifies the tar and grease. Then remove one shoe at a time from the freezer and quickly clean the bottom with a wire shoe brush. Repeat as required.

If your hard leather soled shoes get grease or tar on them, you can clean the soles using #100 grit sandpaper. This takes only a few minutes and does not damage the sole. (Sand them by hand, not with a power sander.)


If you've made it this far, you must really care about shoes and feet. If you want to learn more, check out the multi-chapter on-line guide at www.foothealth.com


This file is part of the FAQ list for the newsgroup rec.arts.dance. The FAQ list is being maintained by Victor Eijkhout (victor at eijkhout dot net, talk about vanity), who appreciates being sent additions or corrections on the material in this collection. Copyright 1994/5/6/7/8/9/2000 lies with the maintainer and the contributors of various parts.

Listen up: Victor did not write most of this stuff; he just collected it. So don't send him any dance questions.

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Last modified on: 2000, Wednesday April 12.