Are Dance Heels The Key To Happier Feet? Some Experts Think So.

Videos circulating on TikTok encourage viewers to swap their regular high heels for dance heels. They may have a point.
These heels were made for dancing.
Rike_ via Getty Images
These heels were made for dancing.

I’ve been looking forward to reuniting with family and friends at weddings long-postponed by the pandemic. What I’m not looking forward to is donning the high heels for the occasion.

Although I love the aesthetics, I never could get past the pain of heels. Despite numerous user reviews confirming a specific heel was “so comfortable,” the shoe always became unbearable after a few hours.

During another online shopping expedition to find somewhat-bearable-yet-aesthetically-pleasing shoes, I came across two TikTok videos suggesting a heel I had overlooked — the dance heel.

Many ballroom, latin and heels (a dance style performed while wearing high-heeled shoes — think Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”) dancers perform complicated, physically intense dance routines while wearing heels (even stilettos). So, if dance heels can give dancers the comfort and support they need to practice and perform, can’t the everyday heels-wearer also benefit from them?

After ordering a pair of ballroom dance shoes to sport at my next wedding, I contacted a podiatrist and a professional dancer to see what they thought about this TikTok hack.

Left to right: Repetto Baya t-straps in silver; Repetto Terry pumps in black; Capezio Sara ballroom shoe in cinnamon.

Why do conventional high heels hurt so bad?

Many love the classic silhouette of heels, but the design features that give them their iconic shape can also cause pain.

“In a traditional high heel the foot will slant more aggressively, and that forces all your body weight to be focused on the balls of your feet,” said Dr. Robert K. Lee, the Chief of Podiatric Surgery at the UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center.

“The higher the heel, the more of your weight is being focused in that area,” Lee said. “The foot was not designed for all your weight to constantly be focused at the base of your toes.”

According to Lee, the constant pressure in this area can cause pain and overuse injuries like capsulitis (inflammation in the toe joints, often the second toe) and metatarsalgia (inflammation in the ball of the foot).

I know this pain very well, so I always thought people were lying when they said they found heels comfortable. Depending on the shape of your foot though, that may be true.

“For many, pain comes from compression on the sides [of the shoe],” Lee said. “Some women have feet that are narrower [in the front] and it’s easier for them to wear high heels. But some people are born with a foot that’s just not meant for heels, and they’re going to struggle much more.”

How are dance heels different from regular heels?

Although regular heels’ function is primarily aesthetic, dance heels are designed to look good and provide support and mobility to the dancer. Popular brands for dance heels include: Repetto, Capezio, Vamp, Aida Dance, Very Fine, Burju and Vivaz.

Lee said that some may find dance heels more comfortable because of the extra padding in the soles and flexible materials used around the foot.

“When someone’s wearing a strappy type of heel there’s no support, and that makes [the shoe] more unstable,” He said. “If you think about the dancer who’s moving from side to side and shifting a lot, you need a lot of stability so that you’re not going to trip or fall.”

Additionally, many dance shoe designers correct one of the major flaws of regular heels: placing all of the wearer’s weight on the balls of the feet.

“Dancing heels allow you to bear more weight on the heel,” Lee said. “This is probably the main reason why they’re going to feel more comfortable.”

However, there’s one feature highlighted in the TikTok videos that Lee disagreed with: the benefits of increased flexibility around the balls of the feet. While this detail may be better for dancers, Lee suggested looking for a shoe with structure if your ultimate aim is comfort.

“For the area where the balls of the feet are contacting the ground, generally the thicker it is the more comfortable it is, because it diverts more of that pressure away from the balls of the feet,” Lee said.

Left to right, all from Burju: Deloro strappy satin dance heels with crystals; Sierra silver vegan leather mesh lace-up ankle boot; Caressa black open-toe cage stiletto

Are dance heels actually more comfortable than regular heels?

Marie Rose Baramo, a professional dancer who specializes in hip-hop, latin, contemporary, street jazz and heels, has been a performer for years. So, she knows the difference between regular and dance heels all too well.

“When I was [learning heels dancing], I wore regular heels because there wasn’t really a proper type of heels for those classes,” said Baramo, who teaches her own heels dance class at New York City’s Ailey Extension. “If I teach my class in a regular heel, the pain that I feel in the ball of my foot is a lot worse than if I had a Burju on.”

Founded by professional salsa and mamba dancer Burju Perez, Burju is a favorite among dancers for its comfort and vast array of styles.

“Dancers are not that different from athletes,” Lee said. “They’re trying to design their equipment — in this case, their shoes — to be as functional and efficient as possible so they can perform at the highest level.”

For Baramo, her specialized Burju shoes help her do just that.

“I had a video shoot the other day. I’d say we had our shoes on for about five hours. I was definitely feeling it by the end of the day, but it wasn’t half as bad as it would have been if I were in regular heels,” Baramo said.

Is it time to ditch your regular heels?

Whether or not you want to invest in dance heels boils down to your aesthetic, desired comfort level and how well your feet can tolerate heels.

“At the end of the day they’re still heels,” Lee said. “The impression that they’re going to feel as comfortable as wearing your New Balance walking shoes is not realistic. But certainly, it’s going to be more comfortable than wearing your traditional stiletto.”

My hopes were high. The ballroom shoes I bought felt a bit more comfortable than other 3-inch-plus heels I’ve worn in the past. Unfortunately, my feet still were throbbing after a night on the dance floor. Finding a heel that works for your foot just comes down to trial and error.

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