How to Choose Flamenco Shoes
Most beginners underestimate the importance of the right shoes. It’s understandable: genuine flamenco shoes are hard to find, they’re expensive. Why spend over a hundred dollars on shoes you’ll never wear again, if you decide flamenco is not for you?
By all means, delay buying the proper shoes until you have studied for a term or two, but don’t leave it much longer. As the footwork gets faster and more complex, you’ll find it harder and harder to cope in any other shoe, and you may become needlessly discouraged.
I myself almost gave up flamenco only a few months after I started, because I felt I would never master a fast redoble. Then I acquired a pair of second-hand flamenco shoes, and suddenly the footwork came easily—and from then on, I never looked back.
So, for those first couple of terms, what should you wear?
For your first lessons, don’t assume dance shoes are your best choice.
Thanks to the many Californians who've told me that Mexican Folklorico shoes are a good - and economical - substitute for flamenco shoes, for those on a budget.
Although I've never examined a pair of Mexican dance shoes, I can understand why they would stand up well to the rigours of flamenco. Some years ago, a native of Mexico joined our flamenco school and I was amazed how quickly he mastered the steps - until he gave us a demonstration of Mexican dance!
"Making Do" - Alternatives to Flamenco Shoes for Beginners
Dance shoes made for most other dance styles are often very unsuitable for flamenco – worse than dancing in street shoes, in fact! Ballroom, jazz and character shoes are designed to be flexible, so you can bend your foot and point your toe. Soft, flexible shoes are absolutely useless for flamenco, and will make it much harder to master the steps.
I'm often asked how to add tacks to character or Broadway shoes. I have bad news, I'm afraid. Firstly, those shoes are not rigid enough for flamenco. Secondly, the soles are too thin to take tacks - the points will eventually poke right through and into your foot. A shoemaker could add a thick sole, but that will probably upset the balance of the shoe.
If you do decide to make do with other shoes, make sure they have a decent heel. In flamenco, even men wear heels for a reason—they make it much easier to do any footwork involving heel strikes. For men, a pair of cowboy boots or riding boots may be a better option than dance shoes—anything with a Cuban heel.
On balance, women may be better off wearing a pair of sturdy street shoes. It’s obvious that Mary Janes or lace-ups are a good match, but look at the strength of the shoe, too. Check the criteria for choosing a good flamenco shoe (below), and see what you have in your wardrobe that comes closest.
How to Spot a Good Flamenco Shoe
Pick up the shoe firmly by the heel and toe box, and try to twist it sideways (not too hard!). A good flamenco shoe should be rigid.
Look at the heel. It should be between 3cm and 6cm (just over 1 inch to 2.5 inches). Lower is better, at least to begin with. Experienced dancers often wear a higher heel but it’s purely for looks, because it makes their legs look longer. Watch flamenco videos and you’ll notice that many of the best dancers choose the lower heel, because it’s better for balance and control. The shape of the heel is a matter of taste, though a very narrow heel will be harder to balance on and because it gives less support to the shoe, there’s more risk of you breaking the shank.
Check the sole. It should be good, thick rubber, to protect the feet and to create the sound. Immediately reject anything with a wafer-thin leather sole – you’ll end up with a bruised foot!
What is the material? Flamenco shoes are usually made of leather or suede. Leather takes longer to “break in”, but will look good for longer. Suede shoes come in some gorgeous colours, and are a little softer on the feet—but of course, that means they will wear out sooner. Don’t buy synthetic—they don’t breathe, nor will they mold to your foot.
Now for the tacks. There should be a generous amount of them, on the tip of the toe and all over the heel (if not, you won’t get a good sound). If they are overlapped, they will be less likely to fall out in use. Run your finger over them. If they are smooth, it’s a sign of a good craftsman.
If the shoe passes these basic tests, it’s worth trying them on. Don’t assume that because a shoe is “your size”, that it will automatically fit!
What Size Should I Buy?
Dancers often buy ballroom and ballet shoes a fraction too tight, knowing they’ll stretch to a perfect fit with wear. However, flamenco shoes are rigid and have less “give”, so if you buy a pair that’s slightly too small, they may never be comfortable. Too-small shoes will affect your balance, because you don't have a secure platform to dance on if your toes are curled up.
Shoes that are too big can be even worse because they can cause injuries. If your foot is able to slide around inside the shoe, you're more likely to go over your ankle or step out of the shoe while you’re dancing. The movement means your foot will rub against the inside of the shoe and cause blisters. If your shoe doesn’t feel like part of your foot, it’s distracting, too.
You want a shoe that fits snugly, with no gaps anywhere, but not so snug that it cramps your foot. Forget any advice you ever had from your mother about leaving room for your toes!
Walk around. Does the fastening (elastic, buckle) keep the shoe on, even if you stride?
Try dancing a little. Do they feel good? A store which understands flamenco shoes should provide some hard flooring for you to try them out, even if it’s just a piece of tile. How do they sound?
Sound is one of the things you may have to compromise on at first. The first time you try on a genuine Spanish flamenco shoe, you’ll probably be amazed at the difference in the sound compared to a foreign copy. But in some ways, it’s a good thing to have a shoe which isn't too loud when you start out – it's not so embarrassing when you make a mistake!
Finally, remember everyone's feet are different - go with what works for you, not with what other people tell you is the "best" shoe.
It’s quite meaningless to talk (as many do) about Gallardo shoes being “the best” flamenco shoes, or raving about Corals. Gallardos are almost indestructible and have an amazing sound, but they won't stretch to accommodate bunions, for instance. Coral shoes have a beautiful streamlined look, but that won’t do you any good if you have wide feet. My favourite flamenco shoes of all time were from Mayo of Seville, which no one else has ever heard of.
Trust your own feet!
Gallardo Shoes Being Made
How to Break In Flamenco Shoes
The idea of "breaking in" flamenco shoes is misleading. You don't want your flamenco shoes to lose any of their rigidity or strength. They're not like pointe shoes, where some dancers do crazy things like crushing the toe in a door and flexing the sole to make it bendy—flamenco shoes do a good job just the way they are!
With a flamenco shoe, all you want is for the leather or suede uppers to mold to your feet so you don't get blisters. The only way to do that is to wear them. It's a good idea to wear them around the house for a few days before you try dancing in them—just be careful the tacks don't scratch your floors.
On that note, if you find the nails are scratching, it's simple to fix—just go outside and scrape them against the concrete on the sidewalk until you get a nice smooth surface (run your fingers over the tacks to check). Don't walk on concrete, though—it will wear the nails down.
Where to Buy Flamenco Shoes in Australia
I've had several enquiries about where to buy shoes in Australia.
I've been happy with my shoes from Salvio's in Sydney. They developed their shoe in conjunction with a Sydney flamenco school. It's based on the Gallardo flamenco shoe and it's a good, solid design. They generally have black suede shoes in stock in a range of sizes, but will make them up in the suede or leather colour of your choice. My only criticism is that they don't use enough tacks, so the sound isn't that good. Apparently they had complaints about the nails scratching floors - but the solution to that is to make sure the tacks are properly overlapped and hammered flat, like roof tiles, not to use less.
I recently discovered Gypsy Shoes, also in Sydney. Felicity's shoes are more expensive, but they are custom made and fit like a glove, plus they have good sound.
Sansha makes a flamenco shoe which is stocked by several dance shops around Australia. It looks OK, and it's fairly cheap, but not the same quality as either Gypsy or Salvio's, or a proper Spanish shoe.
Last updated on July 27, 2014
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