Dance And Fitness Blog

Dancing In High Heels Might Not Be The Best Idea. Here's Why.

Dear tango and dancing friends:

With an open heart and open mind, I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to your attention to a habit you do that may be permanently damaging your health in the long term.

We all now know that smoking contributes to many health problems, yet several generations ago this trend was automatically taken on ‘because everyone was doing it.’

People would automatically start smoking as the image of having a cigarette in one’s mouth was conditioned to be perceived as ‘cool.’ Through media, advertising and our social construct of hip and rebellion, one would be encouraged to puff smoke.

Nowadays, education and public awareness of the harmful effects of cigarettes are conditioning a link between smoking and actually being ‘uncool,’ ‘a wannabe’,’ ‘weak,’ ‘caving in to social pressures.’

Our understanding encourages people to make a conscious decision if they want to adopt this habit. During many years of my tango journey (nearing 14 now to be exact), I have taken on a similar habit. One of automatically adopting clothes and footwear based on what the people around me wore. I regrettably never questioned this cultural trend and never took time to reflect or contemplate about the effects it had on my foot and whole body health.

Those who know me, know that I love dancing. At festivals and milongas I would dance nearly nonstop. After wearing nine-centimeter heels and even lowering to seven-centimeters, I began to experience some soreness in my big toe.

Flats for Health

Seeing a podiatrist in Australia gave me a whole new perspective. Firstly, he said we haven’t evolved to walk backwards, so I shouldn’t be walking backwards (hence no tango dancing) as it strains the delicate toes. Next thing he said is not to wear any heels. Showing me a skeleton of the foot, he indicated how the heel bone is precisely so large as it has evolved to take on most of the body weight, and by wearing heels one displaces a lot of the weight on the metatarsal which has very delicate bones. These bones naturally will dislocate and cause irreversible damage, which affects the whole skeletal system and muscles of body including pelvis alignment, spine, tightening muscles. He showed me precisely where ideal weight is positioned and the natural articulation of the foot bones throughout healthy walking.

Some other issues that may arise from heel wear: High-heeled shoes slant the foot forward and down while bending the toes up. The more the feet are forced into this position, the more it may cause the gastrocnemius muscle (part of the calf muscle) to shorten. When the foot slants forward, a much greater weight is transferred to the ball of the foot and the toes, increasing the likelihood of damage to the underlying soft tissue that supports the foot. In many shoes, style dictates function, either compressing the toes or forcing them together, possibly resulting in blisters, corns, hammer toes, bunions (hallux valgus), Morton's neuroma, plantar fasciitis and many other medical conditions, most of which are permanent and require surgery to alleviate the pain.
The fashionable modern dance shoes, like those made by Taygra, help. Get yours here.

Why do high heels exist in our culture?

Understanding that I needed to decide for myself the pros and cons, I told the podiatrist that I don’t want to quit tango, so I’ll keep walking backward though I am able to switch to flats! Being curious, I looked at the history of high heels and discovered that high heels can be traced back to ancient Egypt. In the middle of the second millennium B.C., Egyptian butchers also wore heeled shoes for practical purposes, that is, in order to keep their feet clean of any blood while slaughtering animals. They were detected in Ancient Greece  200 B.C. for neither practical nor aesthetic purpose, as it was a piece of garment worn exclusively by members of a certain profession, theatre performers in this instance, to differentiate social classes. In the middle ages, elevated shoes were worn outside one’s shoes by both men and women to keep their expensive and fragile clothes clean while walking in muddy and dirty streets.. It was also discovered in horseback riders to keep their feet from sliding off the stirrups.

15th and 17th century women wore heels and elevated shoes as a status symbol. These were elevated shoes that most closely resembled platform shoes.

Old Shoes

The earliest finding of a shoes that most closely looks like the ‘high heel’ shoe was found on a Persian ceramic bowl that suggests that it was worn since at least from the 9th century A.D. High heels were used by Persian cavalrymen as they were highly effective at keeping the wearer’s feet in the stirrups. At the end of the 16th century European diplomats were sent to Persia and then later were seen to wear such heels as a symbol of masculinity. In the 17th century, when there was a craze for adopting male fashion for women, it was starting to be seen in European women’s fashion.

Cavalrymen wearing heels

In the 18th century Enlightenment era, which valued rationality, men abandoned the irrational trend of wearing makeup, extravagant clothing and heels and thus halting men’s high heel fashion.

Perhaps the 21st century here in Montreal can be the start of women’s enlightenment era?

Of course each one of us makes our own life choices and this blog isn’t meant to preach. Also if our identity and sense of self is dependent on a certain image, then for sure it is difficult to make these changes. High heels have been so deeply conditioned into us by media, celebrities and fashion magazines to be associated with a symbol of femininity, youth, beauty and sexuality that one tends to feel these attributes when one wears them.

Perceptions of beauty, however, change through culture and I now invite a new trend. A trend that takes health and comfort into account. I believe it is possible. During the 18th century flats became more fashionable and it is possible for a 2017 comeback!

I invite the reader to observe in one's self what is the motivation to wear heels. One common reason is to 'fit in.'

Another is an assumption that for tango, one needs to have the weight on the metatarsal for close embrace and to pivot. Is that just an assumption? Did you test it for yourself of blindly believe? Have you openly tried dancing flat footed on the floor (no tip toes)?

When I explored and gave dancing in flats, fully flat, an honest try, I found it incredibly liberating and comfortable. I felt more inspired and free to DANCE.

Another common reaction is aesthetic; some women feel that a high heel is more 'beautiful' than a flat shoe. For this, I invite a reflection on what is the purpose and value of your tango or other form of partner dance. Are you a visual performer or do you dance socially for the mere enjoyment of partner dancing? Most people would think of themselves as a social dancer and hopefully put value on the way the tango feels to the dance couple. Wouldn't stability positively impact the confidence, grounding and feel of the dance? Men stopped wearing heels since the 18th century - perhaps it is time for us women to catch up?

I purposefully made a statement to stir some emotions up here. But it's true. Taygra shoes offer the aesthetic men and women alike desire while dancing, while also providing flexibility and comfort. They are the premier modern dance shoe for the tango, or whatever dance you and your partner are into. 

Conclusion

Offering various points for your consideration may allow you to make a well informed decision and cost/benefit analysis over when and how often you chose to wear high heels (or not). I wish I read a similar post back when I started tango in 2002, rather than having to figure it out on my own 14 years later.

In brief, we saw that wearing high heels inevitably leads to irreversible bone misalignment and health damage. It also has no functional purpose and started being worn more by cavalier men than women who wanted to take on masculinity in the 17th century. Men abandoned the makeup and high heels in the 18th century as it was irrational to spend the effort and add unnecessary discomfort to one's life, yet women continued to do so. I invite us women to reconsider the cultural trends we blindly follow and make well informed decisions.

I personally love dancing with flats, especially with thin soled flexible modern dance shoes. As there are so many sensory receptors on the foot, wearing a flexible thin sole allows enhanced feedback from the floor by the foot's sensory receptors and thereby use the full range of motion from the foot. Now that I have experienced a more 'barefoot' feel, my feet dread the idea of wearing a shoe that removes it so far away from the floor.

Another reason I prefer dancing with flats is that i feel less vulnerable. I like the concept of two people dancing WITH each other, rather than a forceful controlling approach to social dance. As our culture evolved over the last century and thereby allowed women equal opportunity, I feel more empowered as an individual allowing me to feel the floor fully and more stable. That mental attitude of feeling more grounded makes it easier for me to have a feeling of dancing WITH the other rather than passive following.

The point of the article is to bring awareness to women that wearing flats or heels is a personal choice rather than a necessity if they want to dance any social dance (whereby the social pressure is most pronounced in tango). I am further motivated to write this article after a lady in the group class I taught remarked after complaining about her tight muscles and physical limitations due to wearing high heels: “Though I must wear high heels for tango! Don't I?” This article is for all those woman: It is a choice.

This article is also for those men to allow women the freedom to chose. I can't believe I still get the occasional remark about wearing flats. Honestly when I get such a comment: “You should wear heels,” I just look at them and state back, “If you like heels, YOU can wear them!”

By Dania Percy, Montreal – January 8th, 2016

Dania Percy and Manuel Soto