Learning to dance in heels was one of the most frustrating parts of my early salsa journey.
The first pair of salsa shoes I bought didn’t grip my foot the right way. The straps didn’t provide enough support and I felt like I was going to tip over every time I took a step.
The second pair didn’t fit correctly either; my pinky and ring toes poked through the front straps in a weird way and made me feel like I was walking with one of those pedicure toe separators on my feet, the way I imagine a duck feels as it waddles along.
The third pair was a complete disaster. Each time I took a step, my narrow heel slipped out of the back of the shoe and created a bouncing sensation––up down, up down, up down–– that drove me crazy and turned my skin red and raw after a couple of hours of dancing.
Salsa dance shoes, on average, cost about $120, so as I kept trying different styles and brands, not only was I racking up a closet full of stinky shoes that didn’t fit correctly, but also a very large credit card bill I couldn’t pay off with my entry-level salary and expensive city apartment.
And yet, I kept buying dance shoes.
During that first year, I bought 12 different pairs of shoes, each one a different style or brand. I researched shoes online, ordered a custom pair from England, and drove almost two hours to go to a ballroom dance shoe store so I could try them on in person.
I became obsessed with finding the right pair of shoes because I thought that if I could just find the right pair, I would be able to move more gracefully, balance better, and step more quickly. I knew the right shoes wouldn’t solve all my dance problems instantaneously, but I did think they would improve some of them.
Finally, I did find my perfect pair of dance shoes. Five years later—now that I can social dance just as well in four-inch stiletto street shoes as I can in my perfect pair of dance shoes—I’ve realized that my tumultuous relationship with heels that year had more to do with me and my level of dance skills than it did the shoes themselves.
Finding the right pair of dance shoes is really tough, I’m not denying that at all. The cut of the style has to match your foot, and the material and make of the shoe does really make a difference. So too does the placement of the heel. Not all dance shoes are created equally, and not all brands are a good match for the unique shape and size of your feet.
But what matters even more than the shoes you dance in, are the muscles in your body and how you use them.
When I first started dancing salsa, my feet (and ankles and calves) weren’t strong enough to support my dancing. I hadn’t developed the right type of muscles in these body parts, or learned how to use them in the right way to transfer my weight, or generate movement from the floor. So even though I kept switching up my tools, improving the quality as I went, I hadn’t taken the time to learn how to use them, and so I saw no change in my dancing. It was like getting a new oven thinking it would make me a better baker, without taking the time to actually experiment with different recipes in the kitchen.
Finding the right pair of shoes is important, and chances are you’re going to have to invest in a few different styles that don’t work so well for you before you find your perfect pair. That’s just part of the dance shoe buying process—shoes stretch and change as you dance in them, and so even if you try them on first, they may not be entirely what you want after a few classes or nights out.
But be patient as you start dancing in heels. It takes hours of practice to build the strength you need to feel comfortable in your latin dance shoes. Remember, like with anything, if you keep practicing, you’ll improve, and all of those things that felt so frustrating in the beginning will eventually go away too.
If you’re looking for your perfect pair of latin dance shoes, below are a few tips to keep in mind that will also help, as well as some tips for strengthening your feet and ankles.
Tips For Buying Salsa Shoes
- Start with a low, flared heel. Trust me, there’s nothing sexy about wobbling around and throwing your partner off balance because you can’t actually dance in the shoes you’re wearing. Start with a 2-inch or 2.5-inch heel and then work up to higher heel (3-inch, 3.5-inch, or 4-inch) as you build strength and stability in your feet and ankles. And remember, every single person you see on the dance floor started from the beginning too! They may look like they never struggled dancing in their heels, but trust me, they did! You’ll be dancing in super tall, sexy stiletto heels sooner than you think.
- Figure out your foot shape, then look for a style that matches. Do you have a narrow heel? Then look for a shoe style that has higher, tapered heel cup. Short toes? A style with a lot of toe straps might not be the best for you. High arches? Go with a shoe that has straps you can wrap underneath the shoe and around your arch. If you can’t try the shoes on in a store, speak to a representative from the shoe company on the phone or via email before you order. They can help you find the best style for your particular foot and explain how their sizing and fit compares to other brands. You can also use the chart below to help you figure out your foot shape.
- Go with a dance shoe size that’s 1 – 2 sizes smaller than your street shoe. Because salsa shoes will stretch as you dance in them and ‘break them in,’ you want them to be super snug and tight when you first buy them.
Tips for Strengthening Your Feet and Ankles
- Focus on using the ball and inner sides of your feet as you dance through each step. Using the right part of your feet is super important in building the right type of muscle strength for latin dancing. Practice your basic and other simple steps (like a suzy q or forward walk) slowly, and with extra attention on how you’re using your feet. You want to make sure to keep your weight on the ball of your feet and push from one step to the other with the inside edge of your feet.
- Warm up with calf raises and point and flex exercises. Before you put your dance shoes on, warm up your muscles with these exercises. Try and do 20 reps, 3 sets on each leg. You can also wrap a resistance band (like this one) around the balls of your feet to increase the intensity of the exercise. It’s important to do each rep slowly and really focus on using the tiny muscles in your foot as you push to point, and pull back to flex your foot. If you rush the exercise, you won’t see the same type of results! To further increase your strength, try balancing on one foot for an extended period of time at the end of a set of calf raises.
- Practice in your dance heels! This one seems obvious, but I’m always surprised by how many dancers I see practicing in flats or street shoes. If you want to get better dancing in your heels you have to actually try and dance in them. After you warm up your muscles in bare feet or flats, put those shoes on even if it means you’re going to wobble a bit more.