During the dream scene of Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly finds himself eye to foot with Cyd Charrise’s long, luxurious leg—and her emerald high heel. As he stands up to retrieve his hat from the tip of her stem, the spike points straight at him until she raises her leg to the heavens. It’s pure bliss. Throughout her seduction of Kelly, she remains perched on a demi-pointe both required by and accentuated by her footwear.
From Charrise’s green glory to Dorothy’s red slippers, it seems that shoes, particularly high heels, have the transformative ability to awaken a woman’s sense of power. But why does a shoe so greatly affect the wearer’s self-perception? When the foot is slipped into a high heel, the calves tighten, the bottom lifts and the chest thrusts forward, exaggerating a woman’s curves. From there, it seems the seeds of confidence shoot up from the foot to the mind. Carolina Giannini, a dancer with Tango Fire, says, “Heels make a woman feel like a cat—filled with stealth,” she says. “It’s sensual like nothing else.”
A Heel With History
Before heels were used in dance, they were used in life. In the Middle Ages, cork wedges and stilts helped wearers stay above mud. Catherine de’Medici brought high heels into vogue in the 1500s when she wore two-inch heels in order to compete with the tall mistress of her betrothed, the Duke of Orleans (later the King of France). In the 1700s, King Louis XIV wore heels adorned with mini-murals including complete battle scenes. He also decreed that only nobility could wear red heels, establishing the shoes as a status symbol.
Considered a mark of wasteful nobility, heels fell into disfavor during the French Revolution, but they later reemerged in varying styles. Traveling through countries and decades, heeled footwear morphed into recognizable form during the flapper era of the 1920s. Since then, the jabbing lift has outlived many other fashion phenomena.
Dance, Lifted Up
As high heels moved into the mainstream, parallel versions kept pace in the dance world. From classic court dances performed in low heels, to folk dances including the jig, tarantella and the Scottish fling, dances called for structured shoes. Phil LaDuca, former Broadway dancer and creative director of LaDuca Shoes, explains: “When the traditional dances were established, there was so much stomping, jumping, scuffing and pounding. So they all required inflexible, hard-soled character shoes that capitalize on the sound of a heel dropping to the floor.”
Since then, heels in dance have diversified and evolved to include options like tango shoes, character shoes, and styles for gliding waltzes. While some dancers seem to have been born with heels attached to their feet (like Charisse, or comma-footed Elizabeth Parkinson), many others find it takes diligent practice to master dancing in them.
For Ballet Hispanico dancer Angelica Burgos, learning to love heels took time. “Before Ballet Hispanico I had only done pointe work,” she says. “Dancing in heels is night and day from pointe shoes, including the posture, balance, and weight shifts. It’s taken me five years, but now heels are like my running shoes. I love the way they make your leg so long, show off your foot, and pop your arch.”
Broadway dancer Donna Marie Asbury wore her first pair in a summer stock tour of Bye Bye Birdie at age 16. Now, she loves the heels she wears as a merry murderess in Chicago on Broadway. A dancer in the Fosse musical since 1999, Asbury says she prefers character shoes with a suede sole, two straps that cross over the instep and an extra platform under the ball of the foot for extra support—plus they add height to her 5’3″ frame. “In the ‘All I Care About’ number, we are sexy and wanton, strutting around with the heels,” she explains. “Then, in ‘Cell Block Tango’ we are angry, and stomping in heels is really empowering for that moment.”
Making Heels Work
Depending on the style of dance, heels are used in different ways. “In tango, you need to put the whole foot down and push off from the heel,” explains Giannini. “The heel is what allows you to glide forward from the momentum of pushing through it.” She adds that three points of the foot are all in use: two in the front, and one in the heel, creating a triangle of support and rebound for the earthy movements of traditional Argentine tango.
For Burgos, some pieces require character shoes with a wider heel and toe box, and others call for ballroom shoes with a very thin heel and tapered front. The diversity in footwear makes special demands on Burgos. “I am always on demi-pointe, pulled up with my stomach in and shoulders back,” she says. “Sometimes, in transitions you have to go through your whole foot. But even when you do, you aren’t on your actual heel; you’re on the shoe.”
Burgos and Asbury both say they wouldn’t trade dancing in their heels for flat slippers. But they do admit that wearing heels creates physical challenges, from dealing with the shift of the body’s center to added stress on the balls of the feet and strain on the lower leg.
Burgos says her lower back is a source of pain due to the altered position of the spine when wearing higher shoes. For Asbury, the discomfort on the balls of her feet is the worst aspect, especially on days with both matinee and evening performances. “You have to give your feet a break sometime,” she says. “Because I wear heels for a living, it takes a special occasion for me to put on a pair outside the theater.”
On top of discomfort, wearing heels also requires serious readjustment in larger movements. For Asbury, sliding into a full split during “All I Care About,” is the hardest move to maneuver in heels. To avoid wrenching her ankle, she slides on the outside part of her foot, essentially sickling it.
Burgos finds large jumps difficult. “Unless you have a partner to support you on your landing, when you jump in heels you have to compromise your height and power,” she says. “You have to make the jump smaller and increase the plié for a softer landing.”
To acclimate to the specific way a shoe affects movement, Burgos suggests dancers wear the same style and heel-height in rehearsal as those worn in performance. She also says that adding a metal brace between the heel and arch portion of the sole creates extra stability.
Both Burgos and Asbury recommend exercise programs that strengthen the core, like Pilates and Gyrotonics, because you have to readjust your center when dancing in high heels. After workouts or shows, they stretch their calves and Achilles tendons daily. They also soak in hot baths with mineral salts. Ginnini does extra strength training for the ankles.
Fortunately for heel addicts, more help is available from shoe companies that take an interest in comfort and functionality. LaDuca founded his company based on his own experience in dance and observations of frustrated female dancers.
“Watching my gypsy friends slam their shoes in door jams really resonated with me, especially as they got injured,” says LaDuca. “When you jump or do a big movement, you have to be able to roll through the foot as you land and brush it as you take off. So my shoes are flexible enough to point and brush, but are still supportive and stable in the heel cup and toe box.”
Many other companies are following suit, with character shoes more closely resembling a pliable ballet slipper with added heel than a wooden clog. But while this change is very welcome to dancers, heels would have a place in dancers’ hearts regardless.
“There are times that we have to rehearse a piece in flats, and it just feels so wrong,” says Burgos. “The minute you put on heels, you become a different woman—sexy, powerful. It’s like Cinderella.”
Lauren Kay is assistant editor at Dance Spirit magazine, and is also a dancer and writer in NYC.
While dancers love how heels look and have learned to accommodate to their demands, Dr. Lori Weisenfeld, a New York-based sports podiatrist, sees the effects on her patients. “Heels do elongate the leg and make the calves contract. But there’s nothing less sexy than women having difficulty walking in them.”
Weisenfeld explains that the discomfort has several sources. The first is pressure on the ball of the foot below the big toe joint on the two small bones called sesamoids. The second is on the paddy part of the ball of the foot, just below where the toes attach, which is stressed from the added weight. The last can come from corns on the top of the toes, when they are pushed forward in a narrow toe box.
“High heels do not allow us to walk in a regular heel-to-toe fashion,” she says. “Also some high, narrow heels are unstable and leave the wearer vulnerable to twisting the ankles, tightening the calves, and shortening the Achilles tendons.”
Weisenfeld says that character shoes are the best choice for dancers due to their wide heel, deep and wide toebox, and common T- or ankle-strap that adds support and stability. In some styles, low platforms in the front of the shoe offset some of the heel height. Wider heels that are placed more firmly below the ankle also help.
Weisenfeld reminds dancers that whatever the issue, foot health is vital. “Foot pain is never normal. Any repetitive pain, swelling, or discoloration should be evaluated by a podiatrist.” For a podiatrist in your area, visit apma.org. —L.K.