"Proper" Tango Shoes

Periodically someone, usually a man, will be bring up the topic of "proper tango shoes." If he's referring to the problem (and dangers) of trying to dance in flip-flops, or mules, or platform shoes etc., those are definitely valid, and very helpful points to be made. The likelihood of damaging your feet is very high without the proper support of high quality shoes. My problem comes with the idea that the *only* proper tango shoes have 4" stiletto heels on them and fetish-worthy embellishments. (Okay, I'm pretty keen on the embellishments myself.)

"goofy ballroomy shoes are a turnoff... get rid of them..." - Alex Tango Fuego (granted this is from 2007), http://alextangofuego.blogspot.com/2007/10/to-dance-or-not-to-dancebrutally.html

And, in the comments on a blog post, Anonymous said... "This is a controversial one. If a follower isn't wearing tango shoes then it's usually a good sign she's not particularly good." From Ms. Hedgehog's post, "Diagonostics" http://mshedgehog.blogspot.com/2010/05/diagnostics.html

So let's talk about shoes.

I have two pair of favorite dancing shoes. The first pair are Argentine (Flabella's) and they're incredibly sturdy. Not everyone likes Flabellas as they can feel a bit heavier than other brands. however, the padding is wonderful, and they're very stable. They're also quite plain. Black suede t-straps with a peep toe. That's it. They are almost identical (her's are closed toe) to those pictured below (it was hard for me to get a good picture off the video, so it's a little fuzzier than I'd like.)

These are real tango shoes. Yet every couple of weeks when I first started wearing them, I would get comments like, "So when are you going to get proper tango shoes?" or some such crap. The woman wearing those shoes in the picture is Marcella Duran, partner of Carlos Gavito. If they were good enough for her, they're damn well good enough for me.

My second pair of shoes are *gasp* ballroom shoes. They're Ziba's from the Elegance Company, made in USA. They are the softest suede I've ever wrapped around my feet and they're adjustable at the toe box and the ankle. They completely conform to my foot. Like most ballroom shoes, they have a suede felt-feeling bottom that goes a little too soft pretty quickly, so I had hard leather "faster" soles put on and now they're even better (and I couldn't have imagined that possibility.) When my feet get too tired or too swollen, I switch to my Zibas because they're so soft and easily adjustable.















I will never be able to wear Comme il Faut's, for example, because they simply don't fit my feet well. Too narrow in the toe box and too wide in the heel. Period. They're beautiful and well-made and just not for me. I also don't need them to be a good dancer.

*/rant/*

What does bother me is selling 4+ inch stiletto heels to beginners who can't even complete ochos without picking up their heels from the floor. I've lost count of how many times I've been stabbed in the calf or the foot by the heel of a beginner teetering on her brand new Comme il Fauts because someone told her that she couldn't learn to be a real tango dancer without them. (I know this because I was told this by at least 3 people.) So now, while she struggles with just being able to walk backwards gracefully, she is also having to learn how to walk in probably her first pair of 4" stiletto heels. Thanks a lot for putting a weapon of mass destruction on the floor.

Meanwhile all you stiletto-tango-shoe-obsessed gentlemen can ooh and ahh over her shoes while the rest of us cringe at the waist high, out-of-control boleo she just executed, unlead.

*/end rant/*

I was talking to one of my teachers who's been teaching tango a couple of decades, and dancing far longer of course, and I asked her what she thought of the tango shoe issue. She said if you can find shoes that fit your feet very well, slide easily against the floor, are thin enough to feel the floor and are secure on your foot - it doesn't matter if they're tango shoes or not. They can come from Payless Shoes for all that matters. If they feel good to dance in, then they're good for dancing, no matter what brand they are. As far as specifically tango shoes go, I am glad to see that some tango shoe companies have pretty options in lower heels, particularly Greta Flora, Darcos, and Neotango.

So gentlemen, if you are assessing a dancer's prowess by her shoes, I feel a bit sorry for you. You're going to miss out on some gorgeous dances. Instead of looking for the most embellished, colorful, high heeled shoes - try another tactic to find the best dancers. Look for the shoes that look most worn, most loved and lived in. They may be a little faded, or scuffed, or a bit rough around the edges, but I would bet that the owner of those shoes has put on the miles on the floor.

A couple more things . . .

- Willingness to plunk down a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of tango shoes does not in anyway correlate to one's commitment to the dance. I've seen plenty of beginners get their shiny new stilettos and quit tango a month later.

- Tango shoes don't make a better dancer. Shoes that fit well and feel good dancing, do. A lot of times those are tango shoes. Sometimes they're not. You won't know until you dance with her.

22 comments:

tangocherie said...

I totally agree that the shoe does not the dancer make.

That being said, still a higher heel helps the dancer keep her weight forward. And with the very high heels it's easier to put the heel down for a nano second to rest. If you're wearing low heels you have to go way way way down to rest, and unless your knees are very flexible and piston-like, that can make you bounce.

I recommend the high heels, and yes, I wear Comme Il Fauts, not because they're sexy or fashionable, but because for my foot, they are comfortable and I can feel and grab the floor with my toes. Maybe I can't walk in them, but I can dance in them.

Believe it or not, walking backward in really high heels is easier.

ModernTanguera said...

Excellent! :)

I was suffering shoe-induced insecurity earlier this year when I was forced to wear flat shoes while dancing (on the physical therapist's orders). On several occasions, I danced past women who were making snide comments about my lack of heels—and making assumptions about what that meant. Funny how much it affected me, even though I'm usually quite confident about my dance skills.

It is definitely most important to have comfortable shoes that do the job, whatever their price tag. I have tried many styles and brands, and (unfortunately for my bank account) I get the best fit with Comme Il Fauts. But I never go above 3 inches (no need-I'm plenty tall as it is!) and just got one of the rare pairs of 1.5 inch CIFs. Those are interesting!

If only the desire to improve were always as strong as the desire to have pretty shoes...

Mari said...

Cherie (waay long reply) -

I would definitely wear Comme il Fauts if they fit my foot shape, but unfortunately they don't. They are strong, very well balanced shoes, despite how delicate they appear. I also agree that wearing flats can run the risk of damaging the muscles in the feet very easily as we tend to flex the foot constantly going up and down on the balls of our feet.

Walking backward in high heels can be easier if attention is paid to proper alignment very early on. Unfortunately, most beginner tango instruction consists of "extend your leg" and "walk naturally" - which do next to nothing to help dancers understand what's required of their posture and technique.

*/begin barely related tangent/*

There are also several fairly common foot conditions (with the exception of Morton's foot, which isn't all that common) that can easily be mistaken for simply "sore feet", and normal callous formation, as we spend more and more time on the balls of our feet. These are conditions that may never come up for someone if they normally wear flat or very low shoes.

Some of these include, but certainly aren't limited to, metatarsalgia, disrupted metatarsal parabola from a long metatarsal bone, Morton’s foot which is a short first metatarsal that causes pressure overload at the second metatarsal, and plantarflexed, or dropped, metatarsal. My podiatrist and another tango friend's (different) podiatrist both warned us that there are several foot conditions like these that can seem like pain from just adjusting to a higher heel - but when it doesn't get better, there's something else going on. Dancing shouldn't hurt the majority of the time - when it does, it's time to have it checked out.

*/end very long tangent/*

When I told my teacher about the problems I was having, and about what my doctor had told me, she and I worked on training me to keep weighted forward without constantly raising my heel off the floor. It's trickier, and requires more engagement of my foot muscles, from my knees. and much more attention to my alignment so that I don't "sickle" my foot, or pull my knee out of alignment. On the good side, I'm far more stable now and finally extending fully into my backward walk, without pain.

One last thing, I truly believe if an instructor is selling shoes to his or her students, he or she should help her learn to walk properly in them.

Mari said...

Modern Tanguera - I know what you mean. When I was recovering from my injury, I hated having to wear my practice shoes all the time. I wanted pretty shoes lol. But when I got an earful about what could happen to my feet, and my future dancing, if I didn't take nearly fanatical care of my feet and posture.

I've seen pictures of the mysterious lower heel come il Faut's but they're quite elusive!

tangocherie said...

I hate to say this, but it's really not possible or pretty to be a dynamic tango dancing woman who dances flat footed.

Just like ballet dancers, tangueras need to be on their toes--the heel height of their shoes is not important.

For a woman with foot problems which don't allow her to go up on the ball/toes of the foot, well, it's unfortunate and maybe she should take up another dance such as belly dancing or contemporary.

Not everyone can do everything well despite various physical problems they may have. If one's expectations are low and they just want the experience, that's great, but to dance WELL, we have to be up on our toes. IMHO.

Just try doing some pivotal ochos flat-footed to see how well that goes. :)

Mari said...

Cherie - I think I may have misspoken and confused the issue, With training I've gotten from Daniela (Arcuri, my teacher), I'm still weighted forward, 100% on the balls of my feet, I'm just not arching my foot four inches off the floor to do it (regardless of what shoes I'm wearing). My high heels are 3" and 2.5", so they're not flats. (And to be clear for my readers that aren't tango dancers (yet) ballerinas are indeed on their toes, tango dancers are on the balls of their feet.)

I think the idea that if someone can't manage high heels, that they ought to consider another dance form is a bit harsh.

tangocherie said...

What I meant to say is that if someone can't dance on the balls/toes of their feet and has high aspirations to dance well, maybe a barefoot dance might be better; that the "shoes" don't make the dancer.

Just putting on a pair of stiletto CIFs don't cut it.

But I believe that high heels help us with our technique, grace and balance in tango and are "tools of the trade" in tango like point shoes in ballet or sturdy heels with nails in flamenco.

I repeat, it's just my opinion.

msHedgehog said...

Yes, I've tried a few brands and settled on two, neither of which is Argentinian, and on a specific heel height which works well for me. The CiF's are just the wrong shape for me, too. It certainly doesn't prevent me getting dances I want, as far as I can tell. Whether it prevents me getting other dances, I have no way of knowing, obviously.

londontango said...

We all seem to eventually get to writing about the shoes. I started off with 2 inch heels and worked my way up. It was a year before I wore a pair of 9cm heels. For Tango, I really do need a a higher heel. I have a pair of 10cm sandals, but they are too high for me and so I vary between 7 and 9cm. I mainly have CiFs as they fit me the best and I do wear them and they get scuffed. I have tango shoes in various heights, colours, and styles and choose them depending on my mood, what I am wearing and how my feet feel.
I also dance Salsa and Ceroc and find that I can dance Salsa in my Tango shoes, but not Ceroc, so I bought some inexpensive but very comfy and pretty latin ballroom shoes in 3 inch with a chunkier heel. I can salsa, tango and jive all night in those. Imagine my cheapest pair of dance shoes are my most comfortable which help me to dance better.
I can also walk in all of my shoes! Even the high ones!
We all have our preferences. One of my teachers says she prefers a heavier shoe and wouldn't dream of wearing any CiF's or NeoTango. I haven't really tried any others. (another reason to go to BA)
For someone to judge another's dancing skills based on their shoes is a bit silly, but if that is what they think makes a good dancer, well, it says more about them.
We could have quite a discussion going on here!

ModernTanguera said...

I have to agree with Cherie, at least to some extent. I am thankful that my flat-shoe period only had to last a couple months, because I was also going out of my mind trying to deal with the issues stemming from dancing in flats.

The heel really is an essential part of walking correctly. I don't think it's impossible to dance in 1-2" heels, but I'm finding the 1.5" CIFs quite challenging in comparison to my normal 3" heels. The heel really helps with walking smoothly and correctly. (At the same time, I have no desire to wear 4" heels! It just isn't necessary, at least for me.)

But as important as I think the high heels are for the dance, I also think it's snooty to shoo people away from tango if they can't handle heels. While such a person may never be great at tango, that doesn't necessarily preclude them from having a great time!

Anonymous said...

I guess I have trouble understanding why people would think that a person can't be a great tango dancer if they wear low heels. I guess that video I saw one time of Eugenia Parilla dancing with Chico in low, chunky heels must have been before she "saw the light". Maybe she wears all high heels now or something.

But seriously now, I do think that people vision of "tango dancer" is overly influenced by visual accouterments. And it all comes back to never ending discussions of what makes a proper "tango" shoe. Leather sole? Spikey heel? SOmething besides ballroom black or tan satin? Heel over 2"?

I'm with Daniella on this, if the shoe is comfortable and you can dance in it, it will work. It may not hold up for a really long time, but it will work.

After all, I see videos of some older tangueras (like Coco) and they are nearly in flat shoes. I doubt anyone would say they aren't great dancers, so the low chunky heel thing and not being a good dancer just doesn't fly with me.

Now, if you want to talk about a person who has spent time and money developing their technique past very basic social levels to where a pair of proper dance shoes will help facilitate their dancing and make what they are trying to do easier, then I can understand the need for proper *shoes* (not necessarily high heels). Because it is my opinion that once you have proper techniques, the heel height won't make much difference except for comfort. If you have to rely on a pair of 4" heels to keep your weight placement forward, then IMO that's a crutch and not a help.

That being said, I do find that if I am going to be dancing lots of open embrace, I find I like lower, thicker heels and if I am going to be dancing mostly close, then i prefer slightly higher heels if my feet are up to it, but I am short and that's an embrace issue rather than a technical one.

-bastet

Mark said...

From a male perspective - I don't care what shoes you're wearing so long as we have a good dance.

Sure, some are prettier than others but practicality (suitability for purpose) and comfort are the criteria by which I judge shoes.

Tango Therapist said...

Let me be provocative: Thanks for addressing this nearly taboo subject. The present shoe fetish that tangueros/tangueras have is Red Tango. Green Tango is sustainable. My experience is that women will be the most protective of the very thing that is harming them in tango. I just wrote a reflection on Green Tango, Mari, as a response to your article. (You inspire me.) Shoes are an important part of of the sustainability question.

Anonymous said...

When I started wearing Comme il fauts a year or so into my dancing, I found that they helped with my posture but now I prefer ballroom / latin shoes for their flexibility. If that makes me miss out on some dances - I say it's someone else's loss.

The Accidental Tangoiste said...

Mari and ModernTanguera, I feel your pain:

With my last pair before I bought my "proper" tango shoes, I was asked two separate times, "Why don't you put your dance shoes on?"--when I was already wearing them. ;) It was a bit of a blow, although I was able to laugh it off pretty quickly.

In fairness, those were converted street shoes--and not terribly attractive for tango, though very comfortable at the time. Toe too boxy, heel too clunky. They'd look nice at work, but not so much at a milonga.

I think I only wear about 1/2" higher, now, than those were--maybe even a bit less--but the last time I tried to dance in them, they were uncomfortably short. My arches and calves hurt, because I was up on my tiptoes, unsupported, trying not to bounce while maintaining the posture I'd now grown used to.

I totally agree that comfort is the most important criteria--how can anyone dance if her feet hurt so badly that she can barely stand?

(I still wear heels of rather modest height: about 3" seems to be right for me, for now.)

AlexTangoFuego said...

"Men are pigs." [AlexTangoFuego]

Hola Mari...

I would like to believe that I have grown since I wrote that about "goofy ballroom shoes". How embarrassing that I wrote that, especially since now it really doesn't matter - it's a thought that never enters my head these days. What's changed? Me, I suppose. Perhaps I have matured as a dancer.

But, if I may expand/expound/belabor the point. When I wrote that (still can't believe I wrote it, but it's there, plain as day on the page...) I was attempting to be brutally honest about my feelings/thought process when it comes to inviting/not inviting. It was a self-exploration as much as anything. I didn't want to edit myself.

I didn't mean to imply that CIF's infer a "better" dancer. For me, at that time, CIF's inferred a more serious dancer. Serious and committed enough to buy some expensive "high performance" tango shoes. All of the women I know who own them say they are the best as far as quality, design, architecture, and responsiveness. The CFM aspect of CIF's is but a side effect.

But I realize that's not really accurate either. No doubt there are many, many women who take their tango very seriously who will never own a pair of CIF's.

Shorter women in higher heels work better for me - so maybe there is a subliminal thing about CIF's going on. Weak. Dude. A-hole. You're just digging yourself deeper into your already deep, deep one. Grin.

Okay, I'm pulling out all the stops here. Men are pigs. Men are visual. Men are visual pigs. One aspect of my blog, and my life (after twenty-five years of married life), is that I didn't/don't ever want to apologize or otherwise be namby pamby about my maleness, and the parameters/attributes/stuff of being male in this world.

The glint of sunlight on a woman's smooth shoulder gets my attention. A woman walking out of a store, one hundred yards away, gets my attention. All of the feet/ankles/calves at Starbucks get my attention. A bustier at a milonga will get my attention, just as CIF's will. It's a fact of life, a law of nature, a fundamental truth of the Universe.

A really good closer just popped into my head, and popped right out. Damn. Oh well.

Men, and probably women, are closer to the primordial soup than we would like to believe.

See the little clouds of dust as the dirt flies from the tip of the shovel and out of the hole as Alex digs himself deeper?

Men are visual.

I'm aware that I'm just backing myself further into my narrow corner.

Men are pigs.

Men are visual pigs.

Oh, I finally remembered what I was going to say.

I pretty much want to dance tango with everything (female) that walks.

I am a man. I won't apologize, but I will listen, eyes open, and hopefully learn.

You, all the women I dance with, and all the women in my life - one woman in particular - make me want to be a better man.

Thank you, Mari, for continuing to open my eyes, and helping me along the path to be a more enlightened primordial type.

The point, just to be clear, is that a woman's choice of shoes is no indicator of her experience, seriousness, "level" of dance, nor how she will feel in my embrace.

Okay, I'm going to press the "Backlash" button now...

Johanna said...

There is a bit of truth in everything written here. Shoes may just be the most intimate thing a woman puts on when she dresses for Tango, the thing we believe says the most about us.

I remember when I first started dancing, someone noted that that flashy shoes brought attention to the feet. And did a beginner really want people looking at her feet? The current trend is evidence of the power of marketing.

I have dozens of shoes, 90% of them not "tango" shoes or even dancing shoes, but all of them capable of filling that task. My most worn out and reliable fall-backs are non-CIFs (bought years before they even existed), and are battered and worn.

But I believe heel height is a matter of personal preference, and has nothing to do with proper technique, other than making it easier to maintain one's weight properly over the ball of the foot. As Cherie pointed out, it's all about the pivot. But I pivot just fine in my practice sneakers (totally flat), as I do in my 3.5" CIFs (yes, I own 2 pairs). However, the converse is also true: you can wear 4" heels and still not be able to pivot properly. Holding our weight forward is more a function of body position than it is about raising our heels (either through muscle contracting or heel assistance).

And yes, I also own Payless Shoes I use for Tango. I love them because they comfortable and they're so cheap that if they fall apart, I have no compunction about tossing them.

Mari said...

Wow! thank you everyone for continuing to contribute to this conversation. I think it just proves that we all have to find our own way, in our shoes.

Alex - I did pick on your post especially, and I really shouldn't have. Not only was it an old post, but I took one line and quoted it out of context. You're right, men are visual creatures. We are also "sorting" creatures.

We have a pretty fundamental need to make sense of things, and categorize things (and people) very quickly. So we judge people constantly by how they look and dress whether we mean to or not. Just like I think men in skinny jeans without the presence of at least an electric guitar and a stage, look like idiots. I'm sure there are exceptions. But there you go. Judgment based on something as silly as attire. We're wired to do it.

Sometimes I just get a wild hair about something like this, though - and have a little rant about it. And skinny-jean wearing men can feel free to rant back at me, too.

I hope you never censor yourself on your blog - I like reading it too much.

Terpsichoral said...

I think most beginner followers are better off starting out with slightly lower (not flat) shoes. They can then progress to the higher shoes later, when they are more stable in heels, if they want to. If you wear street shoes, however, people who don't know you may assume that you are a non-dancer.

Personally, I don't wear Comme Il Fauts because I don't find them comfortable. I like to swap between Greta Flora shoes (slightly stiffer and more structured) and Alanis (very soft and flexible indeed), because I feel they probably have different effects on the feet. I spend so much time in tango heels (hours every day) that I think it's a good idea to rotate types of shoe, heel heights, etc. I'm also more than happy to wear my Bloch or Supadance shoes. They work just fine for tango and I've never noticed that I get fewer dances in them, even though they are *shock horror* BALLROOM dance shoes! But those brands do tend to be very heavily felted on the sole and have too much grip for many of the BA floors. And I definitely prefer to use a higher heel for performance. It does look prettier in the videos.

I also do not use a technique which requires placing my body weight over the balls of the feet. I place my weight above the arch of my foot, evenly distributed between heel and toe, leaving the heels on or close to the floor as much as possible, and leaving them on the floor and even with a little weight, even during pivots. This doesn't affect my embrace. I lift from my back up and towards and around my partner. I'm not in any sense leaning backwards. I dance with lots of old milongueros this way.

I know that many teachers teach that your weight should be on the balls of your feet. But there are disadvantages to this, particularly where stability and relaxed supporting legs are concerned.

Different techniques can work for different people. I am not arguing that having your weight forward towards the balls of the feet is necessarily *wrong*. But I think you should at least be aware that by no means everyone thinks a follower's weight should be over the balls of the feet. Many teachers teach a different approach. I think I've heard at least as many advocate the technique I personally prefer.

Here's a video of Alejandra Mantinian dancing. She teaches, and dances, with the weight in the centre of the foot. She is a widely respected teacher.

http://youtu.be/jveDT81zZr8

Unknown said...

Wow! What a great discussion on so many levels!

My left foot is getting seriously ruined by "proper tango shoes" that are only 2.5" high and I am not thrilled about it given that I not only want to keep dancing tango, but to be able to *walk* for the rest of my life! I spent $140 on pretty shoes that are literally crippling me and it's going to cost much more to get the healing help needed to resolve the issue.

So, I'm off to both a podiatrist and to a tango teacher here who is renowned for diagnosing mechanical/technique issues.

Normally I am very practical and tend to pride myself on being rational. My mind says that if I have to dance in something flat (and I've never been a fan of heels at all or considered myself to be vain or even very, well, feminine) that's ugly for a while, then so be it, right? Being able to dance and walk is clearly the most important thing.

BUT something else in me wants to revolt against this entirely. I find there's something more instinctual in me that wants to be wearing something beautiful (though it doesn't have to be a high heel). I don't care about what the male leads might think and my usual partners clearly just want me to be able to dance and not hurt because they like dancing with me (the Portland tango community's pretty enlightened and plenty of fabulous followers are wearing dance sneakers and such and dancing every tanda).

So, what the heck is this about? Like AlexTangoFuego honestly admitting that men are first and foremost visual (it's just a fact and a scientifically proven one—not good or bad, but about evolutionary survival stuff) what is it about women and feet and heels? All this goes back forever—footbinding is a prime example of it.

I'm off to find some (probably ugly) dance shoes so I can keep dancing, because continuing on the tango shoes is literally, not an option, if I want to be able to walk for the rest of my life. But I'm not at all happy about it and just totally bewildered as to why.

We are all so human and this is just another (fabulous) way that tango is putting my nose into it!

jessbuurman said...

lovely sandals

Anonymous said...

I have 4 pairs of shoes I use for Tango. I have a fancy pair of Turquoise brand shoes with 3 inch heels; an italinan shoe with 2/1/2 imch heels; a pair of ballroom shoes with a one inch heel and leather replacing the suede; and a pair of jazz sneakers. I wear them all, depending on how fancy or casual the venue is, how comfortable my feet are, whether I expect to be doing s lot of leading, and how long I expect to be on my feet.
My favorite is the Italian brand. I use the 3 inch heels when I am feeling more adventurous, but always bring the shorter shoes with me. I generally teach in the jazz sneakers. I often teach 3 or 4? hours at a time,switching back and forth from lead to follow, and I do not like to lead in heels. The 1-inch heels are for when I have an injury but still want to dance.