What is the difference between ballroom dance shoes and regular shoes?
The biggest difference is the soles. Ballroom shoes have a thin, suede sole. This allows the shoes to glide on the dance floor, with just the right amount of grip. Ballroom shoes are also very flexible, allowing the movement necessary to show off your dance techniques. In competition, women should wear tan or flesh-colored shoes, to extend the look of the leg, and not call too much attention to the feet.
What are the types of ballroom dance shoes?
The three basic types are Latin, Standard (also called "Court" or "Modern"), and Practice shoes. Shoes should be selected not only for appearance, but for comfort, support, performance, and protection. Some women prefer the closed-toe shoes, because they offer some protection against being stepped on, and they shield your toenails from your partner's shoes.
If you buy a pair of insoles, you can probably double the number of hours you can dance in comfort. The best insoles are the ones sold for running shoes. Avoid the "gel" kinds, because their squishy nature voids much of the precision contact you need with the floor.
Latin shoes for women are typically an open-toed sandal with a heel from 1 to 3 inches high. The standard heel height is 2.5 inches. If high heels hurt, try adding arch supports. If you only buy one type of shoe, it is generally recommended that you start with a latin sandal.
Men's latin shoes have what is called a Cuban Heel that is 1.5 inches high. Most men only wear latin shoes for competition, and you do not see men wearing them often for social dancing outside of the ballroom.
Standard shoes for women are closed-toed pumps. The heel is positioned more centrally under the foot than a latin sandal's, in order to ease backward movement.
Men's standard shoes are usually a black oxford-style lace-up, with a heel comparable to regular dress shoes. Men, if you only purchase one type of shoe, it should be the standard.
Practice shoes are optional. Women's practice shoes resemble a man's standard shoe with a higher heel. You can also buy dance sneakers that have suede soles.
Dance shoes are typically made and sold in European sizes, which are generally 1.5 sizes smaller than American sizes. This is not always true, so check size charts carefully if you are ordering online.
Maintaining Your Dance Shoes
Heel protectors perform three important tasks: they protect the floor, they give you more traction, and they protect the heels of your shoes. The little heel tips on your shoes wear out quickly, and replacing them will cost $5 or more. When they wear out, they expose the nail that attaches them to the shoe. Plastic heel protectors will prolong the life of your shoes (and your investment).
Shoe Brush: Suede soles lose their nap after a couple of months (more often if you wear them outside of the ballroom). Buy a steel-bristled shoe brush with a handle to refresh the nap in your shoes. These are available at dance shoe vendors, or you can buy a steel "file brush" from a hardware store (the kind used to clean the grit out of files). Be sure to get a handle with a good grip, to prevent damage to your skin from contact with sharp bristles.
Scotchguard: Ladies, if you buy satin shoes, use some Scotch Guard or other fabric protector on them before you wear them. They are very difficult to clean once they get dirty.
Where to Buy Dance Shoes
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of dance shoe stores in the Washington, DC area. Your instructor can recommend some online stores.
Your best opportunity will be to visit the dance shoe vendors at our Arthur Murray DC regional dance events (Freestyles, Showcase, DC Dance-o-Rama). The vendors bring a huge selection of styles and sizes, and are very knowledgeable in fitting you with the correct size and style for your needs.
Vegan Dance Shoes
There are vegan options, that have no leather nor animal products. Generally speaking, these are available on the internet by special order. Most have hard rubber soles, but there are some that have a pseudo-suede sole made from synthetic materials. PETA's website has several recommendations, as does Step One Dance Shoes.