Shoes. There are just so many variables: the slickness of the sole, the heel height, the comfort factor, the floor you are dancing on and, of course, how they complete your outfit! Finding the right shoes is no easy task, and you’ll probably want different pairs for different occasions, but here are some tips to get you started.
If you are to own only one pair of dance shoes, I recommend the sneaker. The sneaker is a staple with beginners and pros alike. You will see plenty of sneakers at the biggest Lindy Hop competitions in the world as well as at your local dance. Why? Because sneakers are comfortable. To tell you the truth, I find that some of the best dance sneakers are the really cheap ones from K-mart or Target – the thin, cheap rubber sole is nice and light on your feet and has a great amount of slip for a range of floor surfaces. Also, you don’t have to worry about changing shoes when you walk into a dance or worry about ruining your good shoes no matter where you walk or dance in them. I also wear Toms (www.toms.com ) for the same effect and if you’re after glitz you can get sparkly ones!
You can get different soles for sneakers too. You might want thicker, stickier rubber if you are on a zippy floor, dancing fast or doing aerials, you can purchase these from regular shoe stores. If you want more slick you can purchase suede soled sneakers from http://dancestore.com or get your favourite pair sueded at any good cobbler. If you feel like some DIY you can always suede your own shoes! I have done this myself with leather off cuts from a liquidation warehouse and shoe glue from Kmart (although super glue may work too). Here’s an article on DIY suede-ing: http://www.gottadance.org/DIY_suede_soles.shtml.
While we are talking about suede, suede soled shoes are fairly slick - enough for foot pivots and turns but still not as slippery as leather. The really good thing about suede is that you can change the slickness factor- if you let them get dirty and matted they’ll get extra zippy OR you can buy a suede brush to keep the suede fuzzy and a bit more grippy (a couple of drops of water will do this too). You will need to carry around extra shoes though, anything you walk through will get all up in your suede and you don’t want that!
Stylish, dressy, comfortable. I would assume that most experienced male swing dancers have a good pair of dress shoes for those occasions when sneakers just won’t complete their vintage inspired suit! Ladies can get in on it too. Chose a colour that will work well with your formal attire gents: a nice brown leather will go with a range of brown, grey and blue suits (as well as jeans or chinos) and feels a bit less formal than black. I’m also a fan of burgundy leather… mmmm. If you really want 2 tone black and white wing tips, who am I to stop you – you might just be the person who can rock them, but they can look a bit rock’n’roll / 90’s / “neo-swing” / gangster rather than classy 30’s vintage. Keep that in mind.
If you’re buying Oxfords, you’re looking for leather soles (rubber soles won’t be nearly as nice to dance in, trust me). Hard leather soles are the slickest sole you can get – they don’t grip like rubber and you can’t brush them like suede. Dancing in slick shoes can be an absolute dream, especially if you’re into Balboa, but if you’re not used to it you might need to practice before letting loose with some leathery Lindy. Dancing in leather soled shoes will force you to control your energy and balance because you can’t rely on your grip to stop you falling over. Controlling your energy and balance will improve your dancing, so do give it a try! (Contrarywise, sticky rubber will force you to clean up your footwork and pick up your feet, so it’s good to practice in both!) You can also wear these shoes pretty much everywhere but I will advise against dancing on bitumen in leathers – bitumen will rip holes in your lovely soles.
You can find leather soled oxfords in regular shoe stores so hit the pavement! You can also find them online. Here are my favourite places to buy both men’s and ladies oxfords!
The Mary Jane
Comfy, dressy, flats that won’t fall off? Yes please. This one is for the ladies: if you don’t have the cudspa to wear heels just yet but need something dressier than sneakers to go with your ball dresses, a nice flat mary jane is perfect. Ballet flats will fall off with too much vigour so the strap is extra important. If you’re lucky you can find mary janes in regular shoe stores but most will have rubber soles which isn’t great for most dance surfaces. My favourite and most worn are plain black Charlie Stone’s (www.charliestone.com) with lovely leather soles. I wear them everywhere! Charlie Stone should be releasing more styles and colours soon too.
The Heels or Wedges
They look pretty and go with your fancy dresses, but heels are usually not your most comfortable option. Heels force your weight over the balls of your feet and, like leather soles, will force you to control your balance and energy. It is easier to roll your ankle in heels though so start small and slow if you’ve never danced in heels before. The thicker the sole, the more stable the shoe, so wedges are your most stable option here. DO NOT wear stilettos to a swing dance. I know other styles wear them, but the energy in lindy just makes it impractical and if you accidentally step on your fellow dancers in stilettos you will be nobody’s best friend.
If you are a Balboa dancer, heels will probably be your friend. They look graceful and lend themselves well to the energy.
You can get suede soled wedges from www.dancestore.com, and suede soled heels from www.lightinthebox.com (just search ‘dance shoes’). Many good heels will have leather soles (leather plus heel – not for the faint of heart). Remix Vintage Shoes is based in LA and does vintage styled shoes that are very popular in the swing dance scene (and the leather is oh so soft). The Balboa is possibly the most spotted shoe at most dance events. They are exuberantly priced though, check them out here: www.remixvintageshoes.com. Saint Savoy is growingly popular in swing scenes: www.saintsavoy.com. And Korea Balboa will make your shoes custom (perfect if you have weird requests… or just weird feet): www.koreabalboa.com/shoestore.htm!
Of course you can dance in rubber soled heels and shoes from regular shoe stores too. Just try a little swivel or pivot in the store to check out the stickiness and a few foot flicks should tell you if they are in danger of falling off with dancing vigor.
The floor factor
The Shoes you choose are likely to be dependant on the floor you are dancing on. If you know the floor well you can be confident with your shoe choice before you leave the house. If you are dancing in a venue you don’t know it might pay to bring a few shoe choices. Wooden floors are the most common but they can differ significantly. If the floor is lacquered it’s likely to be quite sticky, if it’s waxed or polished it might be very slick. Use your leather-to-rubber scale to adapt. Tiles will usually be quite slick, polished concrete will usually not be too slick, while bitumen will grip and ruin your soles. Oiled wood is very sticky and don’t even try to counter it by wearing your suedes- it will just get oil in your suedes and make your suede soles sticky too!
A note on floor modifiers
There are ways to change your shoes/floor without actually changing your shoes/floor. For example, if you’re in leathers or suedes a couple of drops of water will increase your friction with the floor and make you slightly ‘stickier’. Likewise, a little talc or floor wax will make the floor zippier, and dancers have been using duct tape on the soles of their rubbers for years to help them get slick. BUT if you are tempted to use these, be mindful of your fellow dancers and the venue! Floor wax may ruin the venue’s floor. Duct tape tends to peel around the edges and leave sticky residue on the floor. Talc is best use sparingly and on your shoes only rather than over the whole floor (the talc from your shoes will already make the floor slicker for everyone and perhaps not everyone will want it slick).