Irish dance shoes: 7 tips on how to avoid sore feet, ongoing knee problems, hip problems and a plethora of other ailments that can come with Irish dancing, despite that it should be good for you! I have some suggestions for you that I have worked out over a long period of dancing. I also used to sell shoes and boots for hiking, and there are many similarities with dancing, including getting lots of mileage!
1. Supportive shoes
Supportive shoes are those that have stiffness under the arch of your foot, and that move the right way when you dance. Shoes that offer the best support for your feet are torsionally strong, which means they don’t have much twist. What you DO want is the shoe to bend forward at the ball of your foot to allow your heel to go up and down. New shoes often take a while to soften in this part of the sole. So, if the shoe doesn’t bend and give, your foot still wants to go up and this creates friction and rubbing inside the shoe, creating the potential for blisters. Something’s gotta give!
How can I test my shoes?
Torsional strength – grip the front of your shoe with one hand, the back with the other and twist. If it’s difficult to twist them they’re supportive, and if they’re easy to twist, they’re not supporting your feet.
Forward bend- grip the front of your shoe tightly
with one hand, the back with the other and lift the heel up and down and pressing it forward. If it bends easily, there’s plenty of give in the shoe, and if it’s very stiff and hard to lift up from the heel, it’s going to be uncomfortable to dance in for a while or maybe permanently.
Socks or other padding will help to create comfort, absorb sweat and smell (cotton or silk are better – synthetics are not generally as absorbent) and help to minimise the foot and toes rubbing directly on very stiff shoes. I like using little cotton ‘sockies’ that just cover the base of my foot and fit snugly inside my shoes, unseen. Some people like removable insoles, cushioned soles, cushioned socks – there’s plenty of options.
3. Good fit
The closer the inside shape of the shoe – the last – is to your foot, the more comfortable it will be for you. There will be the less friction or rubbing between your foot and the shoe. You know your shoes fit well if you can wriggle your toes comfortably in the front of your shoe and if your heel stays in complete contact with the inner sole of your shoe when you are walking!
4. Wide and thick soles
This is an aspect of dance shoes that I think is overlooked but for me has become quite important. The thickness and width of the sole is very important for support and stability – the wider they are, the more stable they are and the thickness gives you insulation & protection between you and the floor. It seems very obvious but most ladies/ women’s dance shoes have very thin soles and therefore offer very little support, stability, protection or comfort. In addition, a higher heel will press weight forward, focusing the body weight and pressure onto that thin sole, making it even more uncomfortable.
And my final argument for thicker and wider soles, they will give you a much better sound on the floor. If you’re trying to do a bit of battering or some sean nós steps, try a pair of mens shoes and hear the difference! For more on this, I will be writing on this topic next week Change Your Shoes, Change Your Style.
5. No to open-toes shoes for couples dancing
Open-toe shoes designs are an invitation for some clod to unwittingly stamp on your pinky toes. This can be very painful, particularly if your partner has read this article and has got the good thick, wide, heavy shoes on….
6. Shoes that slide on a clean floor!
Slide is critical to reducing the potential for knee injuries. A shoe that sticks to the floor, for any reason whilst you are trying to move, will cause jarring and strains.
Soles that are leather will give you lovely glide, although you will probably not want the edge of your heel to slide. Suede is also leather- split grain rather than full-grain leather, which is the full outside part of the animal hide. Suede is soft and slippy but not as hard wearing. Plastic soles are also popular, will slide, will be quite durable and very LOUD! Try to avoid wearing any type of rubber sole under the ball of your foot, as these will give unwanted grip. However, rubber edges or something on the edge of the heel to give a small bit of grip can be useful so that you don’t go flying when you put all your weight on that heel edge.
If you only have rubber soled shoes – like runners, trainers, gym shoes – to dance in, a tip for increasing temporary glide on your shoe sole is to cover it with electrical duct tape (plastic) or masking tape (paper). Make sure you smooth it down well so that none of the sticky underside catches on the floor.
Oh, and that dance floor needs to be squeaky clean!! No spilled drinks, chewing gum or any sticky stuff whatever. It makes good sense to clean your floor every time before you start dancing.
For anyone who feels that they have too much glide and are unstable, this is potentially about your style of dancing, your shoes or both, which are all possible to remedy: see next week’s blog Change Your Shoes, Change Your Style.
7. Bounce the boards
Bouncy floors act like shock absorbers in a car – they take the impact of your full body weight and stop the jarring in your whole body. See the great bit of step dancing film below and note the wonderful bounce that accompanies the rhythm.
I have been to many dance classes and performances where dancers are on concrete, marble, parquet or floating timber floors laid on concrete . Not good in the long-term for your body: your knees, ankles, feet, hips – the works. This also applies to all dancing and sporting activities that have any kind of leaping, jumping or lift at all.
This is a more difficult problem to solve as events venues often go for the cheapest building option available and put in concrete. I think it’s a matter of making people aware and raising the understanding of the long-term health damage that these floors can do, including anyone who has to stand on them for long periods of time. You can make your own dance practice floor by using a plywood timber top with rubber mats underneath. (I have two of them that I have designed to fit snugly in the length of my car, so they’re portable as well).
I hope this information is of some use to you and I’d love to have your tips about how you avoid sore feet and keep yourself upright!