Gery’s Argentine Tango Shoe Shopping Tips
Argentine tango is extreme footsies. All the intense concentration going on above the hips cuts loose below the hips. Watch the watchers – they’re not looking up, they’re looking down, because the feet reveal all. And all things being equal, sexy shoes trump dumpy shoes 10 out of 10 times. However, sexy shoes will only take you so far on the dance floor (possibly much farther off it), so you need to back up the look with a real effort at technique. And technique is always easier with the appropriate tools.
Sexy, comfy, secure shoes are tools that make dancing tango as easy as it can get. Which, actually, is not that easy, but why make a difficult task needlessly harder? Why make do with a pair of clodhoppers when you can parade around in sheetrippers for hours in total comfort and never worry about doing untold damage to innocent bystanders? Investing in good equipment is essential for any enthusiast, and especially so for dancers. To see what I’m talking about, check out my suggested sources for Tango Shoes.
Before I get into details, I have two rules of thumb for women thinking about shoes from Argentina: Don’t dawdle, but be picky. Styles, color combinations, and materials can sell out quickly, and you might never see those combos again. (More’s the pity, because all the shoes I want are vintage Comme Il Fauts – I snoozed, and I lost. The first time I went to Bs As was before Comme Il Faut and Neotango and other stores were around; the second time was after, and I went down with money for six pairs – I ended up with only three, and two were all black, because I was so fussy about the materials and styling and color. So I keep monitoring the shoes coming off the artisanal assembly line, waiting for the perfect pairs for fussy me.) Maybe you’re not quite as anal as I am about shoe design, but you do want to take a hard look at the styling to avoid buyer’s remorse. If those straps seem a little too wide before you buy, they’ll only seem more so after. Wait for the shoes that make your heart skip a beat, and then pounce.
When shopping for a good tango shoe, your goals are safety, agility, comfort, sex appeal, and possibly durability. And not necessarily in that order. I should note that, minus the safety criterion, since there’s not much likelihood of a man’s shoe arcing through the air to take out someone’s eye, this advice applies to men’s shoes as well as women’s. It’s actually much harder to find sexy shoes for guys, but it can be done, and I will point shoppers in the right direction.
Because the dance involves steps where a leg swing can easily send an untethered shoe sailing, women’s tango shoes need some kind of strapping system to make sure they stay securely on her feet. Since straps can look very sexy, there is no downside to this requirement.
Also, the heel cup (or sling back) and strap(s) should allow full freedom to move your foot without slipping or binding. A wobbly shoe is begging for a twisted ankle.
Because there is a lot of pivoting and balancing on one foot, both men’s and women’s shoes need to be roomy enough in the toe box to allow said toes to wiggle and reach and grip the floor and basically act like hands in gloves (and I mean surgical gloves, not oven mitts). Width is good. Soft leather or fabric is good (but remember that leather and sometimes fabric will stretch over time).
Soles of thin leather are ideal for being able to feel and work the floor. The suede sole of typical dance shoes is okay, but Argentine tango shoes are sort of a hybrid between ballroom dance shoes and street shoes, so I think a smooth thin leather sole is the more appropriate look.
The other non-Argentine thing about regular ballroom dance shoes is that there is way too much flexibility where the arch meets the ball-of-the-foot area, adding a ballet-esque quality to the dance that can be lovely but oddly enough not as sexy. Typical dressy street shoes these days are as stiff as boards and rarely make a good dance shoe even if they meet all the other criteria. The best way to test a shoe (before even bothering to try it on) is to hold the heel cup and the toe box and see if the toe area can bend up and down a bit (more up than down). If there’s some flex, excellent. If not, put them down and move on.
The toe shape falls into the agility category, because long pointed toes get in the way big time. For both men and women’s shoes, the closer the shoe follows the outline of the toes inside the shoe, the better. Otherwise you will trip on your partner’s feet half the time and your own feet the other half. (Conversely, if you wear a short-toed sandal-style shoe, make sure your toes don’t hang over the front, or pooch out between the straps across the toe area.)
And lastly, the overall weight of the shoe should be minimal. A thick sole or chunky heel adds more momentum to a swinging leg and really messes up the timing and finesse of the dance. (I have a custom pair with a thicker, lower squash heel that I sometimes wear with pants if I don’t want to look too dolled up in class, but they are as lightweight as my other shoes, so they don’t affect my boleos and ganchos.)
Rule of thumb: If they look clunky or feel clunky, just say no.
It’s nice to be able to dance the night away, which is not too likely in a pair of tight, stiff shoes that give you blisters within the first hour. I’ve had leather tango shoes that never came close to giving me a blister, and I wore them for hours from the get-go, so don’t settle for pain – all it means is that you could and should find a much better shoe to dance in.
And don’t think low heels are always more comfortable. Because women spend almost all their floor time on the balls of their feet, the more on tiptoe they are, the better their dance posture is as well, as they are then weighted directly over the balls of their feet, which is absolutely essential for making decent turns. Some brands of tango shoes are wonderfully comfortable even with 3.5- to 4-inch heels. The sex-o-meter correlates directly to heel height, why short-change yourself? (Some of the best advice I ever received was at a workshop by Nito and Elba, where he told me to practice in the shoes I danced in. And I usually do, and I think he’s right. If they’re not exactly the same, it sure helps if they’re the same height and feel the same so you don’t practice in oranges and then try dancing in apples.)
(The most comfy brand I’ve found for sexy super-stiletto heel Argentine tango shoes is Comme Il Faut (but in truth I haven’t field tested all the brands – I wish). In fact, one of the shanks broke in my black suede pair with 3.5-inch heels, which caused the heel tip to rest a quarter-inch farther back than the other shoe, and it feels too creepy for words, I simply cannot dance or even stand comfortably in that shoe. But the unbroken shoe feels solid and comfortable. That’s not to say a different brand with the same heel height will feel the same as the CIFs; it really depends on the last that was used to build the shoe. You’ll just have to try shoes on to know for sure, but don’t settle for less than “Feels Great!”
And here’s a super helpful tip if you need to shop online: See if you can get someone local who wears the same American size as you do who will let you try their shoes on so you can be more certain of the Argentine (European) size you need to order. Just bear in mind that each style of shoe in the same size from the same company might feel a tiny bit different. Worst case, if you order a pair and they don’t fit (don’t settle for a poor fit!), most online suppliers will let you return the shoes provided they are in pristine condition – but check to make sure before you buy.
Sex Appeal for Women
For women, it’s really simple: stiletto or slim heels, straps, small toe box, and enough flexibility to let your feet speak, even sing. The slimmer the stiletto and the straps, the better, and of course, the higher the heel the better. If you have foot trouble and really do need a low heel, opt for a dainty one, perhaps a Louis (squash) heel.
Long, pointed toes are a no-go because they make you look and feel clumsy – ergo, not sexy. (What works in the bedroom with a corset and a whip doesn’t always successfully transition to the dance floor.) Note that shoes with closed toe boxes often have longer toes than peep-toe or sandal style, and you want the shoes to trace your toes as closely as possible. Don’t worry about getting your bare toes stepped on – it feels about the same as getting your thin dance shoes stepped on, and it doesn’t happen nearly as often as you might think (most guys can feel what they’re doing and arrest their movement before they really transfer their weight).
Lastly, if you’re going for wildly attractive (and why would you not be?), walk away from those full-foot shoes that lace up and look most appropriate on humorless school marms from the 1930s. Trust me on this. Comfort is good, but looking too comfortable is a real buzz kill.
Sex Appeal for Men
For men, it’s not so simple, because the American dance shoe industry hasn’t cottoned onto sexy design for men yet (as far as I know), but there are some very sexy men’s shoes from Argentina available online (or you can nip down to the southern hemisphere to stock up).
Here are the few things you can look for: Raked heels, higher heels, and a shortish but firm toe box.
My favorite pair of men’s shoes are the kind that El Indio has custom-made by artisans who also make gaucho boots (the cowboy boot of the pampas). (I still dream of seeing a guy tango in cowboy boots, OMG, that would be beyond awesome. The Marlboro Man doing a milonga, be still my heart.) My second favorite pair are the shoes I got for Greg 10 years ago at Delie in Buenos Aires with full-French heels. Latin style heels are higher and they do angle in, but they also have a waist to the heel that I don’t think is as sexy as a straight rake (cowboy boots and flamenco boots have a straight rake to the heel). I tend to equate the latin shoes with a certain ballroom effeteness, whereas the shoes that are more bootlike or streetlike (and here I’m envisioning the streets that Italian, Spanish, and French bad boys might be walking on) imbue the lead with a manly confidence that says he could kick butt if he wanted to bother, but instead he’s wondering if the fireworks when we dance will be too distracting for others.
Soft leather ballroom dance shoes with low heels can make a guy look like he’s wearing slippers and has fallen arches. (And the super flexible arch lets him point his toes just a bit more than is properly tango.) The soft leather at the end of the toe box tends to collapse after awhile, and this crimp is SO not sexy it makes me cringe. It is imperative to avoid mushy toe syndrome. A sexy shoe requires a toe box that holds it own. Quality tango shoes from Buenos Aires are really good bets – the leather is firm but still very pliable. Fine leather dress shoes from Italy or Spain can also work. And guys, think about a higher heel – I’m just trying to be objective, ha ha.
As for colors, well, you’ll never go wrong with basic black, and if you can only get one pair for now, let them be black. But tango shoes come in all sorts of nice color combinations, and the only ones I’d suggest avoiding unless you are being paid pots of money to perform are the ones with white in combination. Although, I did run across a guy wearing a gorgeous pair of cream and browns awhile back. As a rule of thumb, avoid flamboyant unless these are your “fun” pair, but don’t expect to top the sex-o-meter, mens’ shoes don’t work that way.
One last bit of advice for guys: The sexiest tango shoes in the world are not going to win the battle against shorts or a utilikilt, so don’t delude yourself on that front. For sexy, you really do need long pants, and by that I mean long-enough pants, preferably with a nice drape (see photo at right); shoes and long pants a tad too short are nearly as tragic as shoes and shorts on the sex-o-meter.
First off, I am not talking about making shoes last if you are using them on wet pavement or rough concrete that acts like sandpaper. It doesn’t take much of that sort of abuse to trash dance shoes. I’m talking about the slow wear and tear on a favorite pair by constantly rubbing the inner edges together, as a good dancer will (must!) do. Even if the outer edges look okay, the inside heels (and toes) can start to look pretty scruffy, and there’s no hiding the fact – it shows with every step. So if you don’t opt for black (non-patent) leather, which wears the best and the longest since it hides so many sins, then you have to figure how long you want your pair to last, and think in terms of wearings, so you can wear them infrequently forever, or live in them for a few months or years and then bury them in the back yard beside your goldfish or hamster.
Glitter shoes look scruffy almost right away, and you’re apt to leave a trail of rubbed-off sparkles. (If this is a special pair, then fine – if you’re a woman. If you’re a man, walk away from the idea right now, I’m telling you.) Next comes fabrics in light colors or patterns, duh. Suedes are harder to keep clean than leathers, and really start looking seedy if they get wet much, which of course, they absolutely shouldn’t, which is one of the reasons why you don’t wear them on the street. Light colors harder to keep clean than darker colors which mask wear marks. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a white tango shoe for women, and I’m not sure I want to. A flesh tint or silver are better choices I think.) Prints can mask encroaching scruffiness. And avoid patent leather unless you want to smear the inside edges with vaseline so that your feet don’t stick to each other and make you stumble.
If you can only afford one pair of shoes, get something gorgeous in black leather (possibly with colored trim and straps for women’s shoes). If you can get a second pair, get a colored leather or darkish suede or a metallic leather. If you can afford multiple pairs, then make sure one of them is a glorious pair that might not stay pristine all that long but will make you feel fabulous for those few wearings.