The Poetry of the Foot - Adventures of a Would-be Barefoot Tanguera

Dancing is the poetry of the foot.  - John Dryden




My feet are stronger than they have ever been in my life. I can not only maintain demi-pointe (balancing over the balls of my feet) on one or both feet for several minutes at a time, but now I can do it almost completely perpendicular to the floor (half pointe). I couldn't raise my heel more than about 3 inches a year ago.  I worked and worked and worked my feet to build strength and flexibility for one purpose - to wear ever higher stilettos and be stable.  Now that I can articulate my foot and maintain my balance in ridiculous-height shoes (5"+), I find I don't want to.

Training my feet to tolerate, and dance well in, high heels actually required me to dance, train, and exercise barefoot. A lot. This was a surprise to me but all of the dance-field trainers told me that was really the best way to train. Shoes of almost any kind restrict the movement of your feet. To really develop the intrinsic muscles (the muscles inside the feet as opposed to those muscles that have a connection above the foot), I had to free them from the shoes. They explained that, generally, you don't want the shoe to have to support your feet. You want to have the strength in your feet (and calves, hamstrings, etc) to carry your own weight well, articulate through all of those 66 amazing joints and hold yourself stable.  The more I did it, the more I loved it. It's addictive to really feel what your feet can do - how they can move you, propel you over different surfaces - how they respond to the demands of the environment, and all of the information those nerve endings send you. Changing your feet will forever change how you move through space - and that, mi amigos, changes everything.

In tango practice I started wearing my black jazz "flats" that are more like slippers with about 1/2" positive heel. I loved it. At first I was anxious because there is a very real risk of damaging your feet if they're not strong enough or flexible enough to support you - especially if you dance on the balls of your feet whether you're in your shoes or not. But when my feet were forced to go through the movements, albeit very carefully and slowly, without the heel to rest on, they adjusted and strengthened. It took time and patience, and really paying attention to the signals my feet were sending. I had to slow down and really listen to my feet.

Soon, I was wearing Capezio Freeforms, a modern dance "shoe" that's more like a sturdy sock, with no heel at all. I could feel the texture of the floor under my feet. I could spread my toes. I could feel the vibration of the music in the floor. The only thing keeping me from dancing completely barefoot during practice was the friction issue - my feet don't slide the way I need them to.

Fast forward to now.

I've been working my feet for months, actually about a year, to be able to wear a higher and higher heel, only to find I don't want to wear the high heel much anymore. I wear a much lower heel whenever I can so that I can have more dynamic contact with the floor. I wear the lowest, thinnest, most flexible shoes I can find - but I don't go completely flat. (Though sometimes I wish I could.)  As good as it feels to dance truly against the floor, I can't deny the fact that my legs look better in heels. The image of the tanguera, I fear, will forever require at least something of heel. I can find no pictures - even from the 20's, of flat, or minimal, heeled shoes. So I wear them, even though I am now keenly aware of the damage they're doing. While I don't have the pain in my feet from wearing high heels that I used to have, I can still feel the effects the next day. My ankles are sore, my lower back is stiff, particularly if I danced a lot. My alignment feels "off" for awhile until I stretch and exercise the feeling out. I go walk barefoot in the grass to remind my feet I still love them, despite what I put them through the night before. For now they always seem to forgive me.

I know the arguments for the high-heeled shoes made for tango. They're made well compared to high-heeled street shoes, generally. They're stronger, more stable. We walk backwards the majority of the time in tango, and a high heel makes that a little easier.  We don't have to flex through the foot completely because the high heel "meets us" before we need to make heel contact with the floor. Then there is the aesthetic - the look of the long leg, despite its cost to our back, Achilles tendons, hamstrings, and feet. I've heard the arguments, and I've shared those arguments with others.

I've heard men (and women) judge a tanguera quite harshly if she wasn't wearing "tango" shoes. One told me directly, looking at my ballroom shoes when I first started dancing, that a dancer wasn't really serious about tango until she bought "proper" tango shoes. So I have my tango stilettos.  My body adjusts to them until they feel "normal". But I remind myself, that normal is really habitual - not natural. Sometimes, at the end of the milonga, I'll slip my Freeforms on. My partners don't seem to mind that I'm about 3 inches shorter. It takes a moment to adjust, to find my new place against their torso - but then we're off. I can get away with here. In a milonga where I'm not known, I'd be sitting on my butt in those slippers.

Still, I would love the opportunity to be connected to my partner - and have that same feeling of unrestricted contact and connection with the floor. If, as the poet John Dryden says, dance is the poetry of the foot - how can we create a work of beauty with the limited vocabulary our shoes allow us?

5 comments:

Tangocommuter said...

Training barefoot to strengthen the feet makes complete sense. With solid shoes the feet can become like clubs striking the ground, not like hands that pull and push the body forwards. I came to a similar conclusion recently after wearing 'flats' while I was looking into 'natural' (barefoot) running, and it's redefined my tango walk: it's put a spring into my walk which conveys energy and also improves balance, since there's more flexibility in the feet and ankles. Thanks for writing about this: it really makes sense for many of us.

Janis said...

In Buenos Aires, you'll see most seasoned milongueras wearing street shoes to the milonga. The production of shoes for tango in the last 10-12 years has grown because of foreign demand.

Of the 12 pairs I use for dancing, only 5 were designed for tango.

Mari Johnson said...

@Tangocommuter - thank you so much for your comments. I'll keep the research (and some therapeutic exercise suggestions) coming. :-)


@Janis - there (in Argentina) you have the benefit of street shoes being made substantially better than street shoes here (or rather in China where most of our shoes in North America come from.) Given the choice between a Chinese street shoe and a tango shoe - the tango shoes are (usually) at least made of higher quality materials, have more stability, and more durability.

When I do wear street shoes for tango, they're usually made in Spain, though I have an Italian pair that's done well for me. I haven't found a Chinese shoe that can both fit my foot and take that much wear.

Madhu said...

Thank you Mari, so much, for writing this post and answering some of my questions!

It's very telling to me that, the longer a dance has been in this world, the higher the likelihood of it being done barefoot or flatfooted!...I'm heartened to hear many of the seasoned milongueras still dance almost-flat footed - you can be sure I will ask them for their opinion when I see them:)

kevin smith said...

so yes while it is better to run more on the center of your foot, if you do it subconsciously it may have something to do with the arches of your foot. you may need orthotics to correct this.
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