Tuesday, October 08, 2013

12 things to look for in choosing women's tango shoes

I'm posting this article, which I originally wrote in Italian years ago for a different audience, as a segue to last week's "Ask Helaine" posting.

Want to joyously "walk" thousands of miles on the dance floor, pain-free, and feel like a Queen?  I’ve listed here for you my own criteria for selecting tango shoes! This list is primarily for women, because high heels create particular problems, but some of the advice can also be useful to men. 

Here are a dozen things I look for when I buy tango shoes:

1) Comfort.  Number ONE!  They must be as comfortable as your favorite every-day shoes. 

When I taught daily lessons in the studio, I wore tango shoes with 8-10 cm heels, almost every day, sometimes for 6-8 hours continuously.  I still have some days like that with my Private Coaching Intensives. And like many of you, I generally don't wear high heels in my daily life. So early in my teaching career I learned to choose shoes wisely. 

If they don't feel 100% good when I try them on, I don't buy them.  If I've ordered them online and they're not quite right, I return them. No stretching, no "breaking in" period. "Breaking in" means breaking in my feet too! Shoes are comfortable or they're not. My feet come first, and so should yours. 

My feet are not perfect or beautiful, but they are happy and they serve me so well!  I want your feet to be happy, too.

2) Stability. You must feel very stable, even if the heels of your shoes are stilletto. Though I maintain that good balance comes from within you*, your balance and your tango in general will improve when you wear the right shoes. 

I've heard many women say that they need thick heels for balance. It's a fallacy. Ditto for low heels. Either is a personal choice. For balance, however, various factors of the shoe’s construction that make up what I call the shoe’s "geometry" matter much more than height or thickness of the heel.  A good tango shoe's geometry can really enhance your stability. See the following points 3 through 6. 
* Mastering your balance is the first thing that I teach absolute beginners and 12-year tango veterans alike!  You can learn to master your balance, once and for all, in the first few weeks of my Advanced Tango Fundamentals online home study program.

3) Position of the heel. The heel should be positioned vertically and perpendicular to the floor, right under your heel bone, as if the vertical grew out of the center of your heel. It should not be positioned at the back of your heel, nor slanted toward the front of your foot. Your high heel should function like a continuation of your tibia (main bone of the lower leg) - though it aligns with your heelbone, slightly behind the actual tibia.  When you stand on it, the heel should feel to you like a continuation of your leg to the floor.  You should feel secure in the heel's supporting your weight - even a pencil-thin stiletto - thanks to its position in relation to your body.

4) Distribution of your weight.  The shoes should be constructed to distribute your weight over the entire sole of your foot: ALL five toes, the ball of your foot, your arch and your heel. 

5) Room for your toes.  For maximum stability when you dance, your toes have to work!  You should be able to stretch them long and open them wide, almost as if you were barefoot. This is why many tangueras prefer sandals. But the sole of the shoe must still protect your toes, which mustn’t extend past the shoe and touch the floor. Your toes need protection from minor brushes with your partner's shoe. For this reason the sole should extend slightly beyond the length of your extended toes.

6) “A shelf” for your heel.  Inside the heel of a good tango shoe is an almost horizontal plane which supports up to half your body weight. 
Such shoes don't send all your weight forward down the shank and dump it onto the ball of your foot. Instead, the "heel-shelf" eliminates stress on the balls of your feet by distributing your body's weight evenly across the sole of your entire foot.  I advise you to examine carefully any shoes that you try on for this characteristic. Sometimes you can feel it much better when you try the shoe on and stand on it than when you just look at it. Make sure the shoe's heel doesn’t function like a slide, but like a shelf! 

7) Good support for your foot.  Your whole foot should feel supported by the construction of the shoe - shank, sole and sides - without having your foot's  flexibility impaired. "Fashion" shoes are usually a poor choice for dancing tango, because they're not constructed with any thought to good balance, or to the foot's athletic activity when we dance. 

The arch of your foot should rest on or very close to, the shank, the strong, narrow rectangle that runs from your heel to the ball of your foot. If there's a big gap under your arch, the shoes don't fit you right.

I usually notice that after I've worn a good pair of tango shoes a year or more, or even less with heavy use, that the leather or cloth sides start to break down and lose their shape, and take on the little ideosyncratic defects of my foot.  When that happens I can feel my foot start to wobble a bit inside the shoe. It's important to replace worn tango shoes.

8) An optional comfort bonusDarcos is one company that boasts about its double-padded front inner sole, under the toes and ball of the foot.  Until you're really using your foot properly, the extra padding can make a difference in the number of hours in which you can dance, and can help you have a pain-free evening. 

However, I encourage tangueras, even new beginners, to learn to properly distribute their weight and use their feet well from the beginning.  I teach all my students how to use their feet correctly, so they too can avoid foot pain and greatly improve their balance. Then extra padding in your shoe won't be neessary.

In my early years of tango, I often suffered from sore calluses in the center of the balls of my feet. It was a huge relief to change into my flats after a milonga. Often my feet were so sore after a long night of dancing that I couldn't sleep, and I felt the both muscle- and callous-soreness all the next day. I would massage my feet with arnica cream at night so I could sleep.

But from the time I learned to properly distribute my weight and really work my feet and toes, I could dance for hours on end, painlessly.  Now my feet feel great till the end of the milonga, while I sleep, and the next day, too!

If a tanguera's toes are not strong, she's not using them properly when she dances.  She's likely to have trouble walking backward by herself. She probably suffers from a lot of pain in one point in the the balls of her feet.  And most likely, when she dances, she depends on her partners for balance, more than she would like to admit.  When that happens, the dependency on the man in her tango goes beyond balance too!

9) Sole of the shoe: Tango shoes have either leather or suede soles. You can chose according to the floors you dance on.  Leather is more versatile, because it lets you glide and pivot on various surfaces.  Leather's also more durable than suede. 

Suede can help when the floor is very slippery. On rougher floors, dancing on a suede sole can be torture, as it creates too much friction.  Resistance between your sole and the floor is so dangerous for your joints when you pivot; you don't ever want to torque your knee!  

I advise you to keep seeking to acquire greater balance on your own, so that you can dance well and securely on slicker floors, even with leather soles.  Dampening the leather sole of your shoe with a little water can help.  Still, I INSIST that my tangueras improve their balance and really use their feet and all their toes to keep them stable and secure, no matter what the flooring is. (One exercise I assign is very efficient in reinforcing stability through improved use of your feet. But I have a whole program that helps women and men alike master their overall balance.) 

10) Strap – its role and position. The shoe strap keeps the shoe securely on your foot, despite all the dynamic flexions of your foot while you dance. The strap can be just above or just below the part of your ankle that flexes the most when you bend your foot up toward your knee. That is, the strap shouldn’t choke your ankle. Various kinds of straps are good, including T-Straps. Dancing with the strap too tight can bruise your foot! But when it’s too loose it doesn’t keep the foot securely and comfortably in place on your foot.

Another optional bonus:  Darcos shoes have a special kind of latch that eliminates the annoying problem of struggling to slip the strap into the buckle each time and then search for the hole to buckle it, especially in many milonga environments that aren’t well-lit. You adjust the buckle once, and from then on you can latch your shoe "by feel", in the dark or with your eyes closed.

11)  Choice of materials. If you want to have many pairs of shoes, you can choose more for esthetics than for practicality. Obviously, leather is more durable than fabric, for example. Even suede shoes tend to wear out and lose their shape sooner than leather. Fabric and suede can be more difficult to clean, as are light and colorful leathers, compared to dark colors. But shoes in various fabrics and in suede often look more elegant or dressy than leather shoes, with the exception of patent leather. Colors look deeper in suede.  Patent leather shoes, beautiful as they are, are more rigid and could take longer to become like gloves for your feet. Many shoes are available in mixed materials. These are very personal choices. You can decide based on how much you want to dance, and how many pairs you want to own. It’s a very individual choice.

12) Beauty!  A tanguera expresses herself in part with the esthetic choice of her tango shoes! Besides being beautiful objects, your shoes should enhance the beauty of your feet!

I would avoid buying tango shoes from someone who is not at least an advanced dancer of Argentine Tango, or specialize in serving tango dancers. Ideal vendors have been supplying professional tango dancers for many years, or have been dancing tango for many years themselves. If you ask for help from shoe sellers of general dance shoes, you risk getting incorrect information, because the needs of our feet are different than the needs of ballroom or salsa dancers' feet.  We really use our feet differently in Argentine Tango.  

I hope that some of these tips help you experience tango foot bliss . . . like I have!

I welcome your comments below!


  1. Dear Helaine,

    It brought me so much comfort as I am a beginner learning tango. To see that I now know where to buy the proper kind of shoes that I will feel comfortable in as well as my feet which is very important to me so I can have good balance, posture and comfort as I have had problems with dealing with different issues with my feet. All your information
    Has been very helpful! Marsha

  2. Great, Marsha. So glad that this information will help you as you start your tango journey! The right shoes can empower you too, for the reasons you listed. Hugs to you!