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What tango shoes should beginners wear?

Last updated on January 24th, 2023 at 12:54 am

 

3 pairs of high heel tango shoes for women

For people starting their tango journey, one of their first questions is what tango shoes should beginners wear? Thus begins for them a whole new relationship with their feet and shoes! For years, we have helped many people new to tango find the right shoes for them, so we have some tips to share. You could be an absolute beginner and just signed up for your first class, or have been taking classes for a while and are thinking of buying your first “real” pair of tango shoes, or perhaps you are used to ballroom shoes and are curious about switching tango shoes. We hope this helps you!

If you’re feeling impatient, you can jump to the end of this article for our top tips.

 

Why the right shoes are important

Normal street shoes are made for prolonged outdoor use, walking on hard and uneven surfaces, protecting your feet from wet, dirt and bumps. Or they could be made to be aesthetically pleasing and for very light use. 

On the other hand, dance shoes are made for dancing. For the Argentine tango, this means usually dancing indoors on a smooth wooden floor. They are flexible yet structured enough to support your foot, thin enough to feel connected with the floor but padded enough to absorb constant use. Soles should be slick enough to let your foot turn smoothly when you pivot, but have enough grip so you don’t slip when you walk. 

While you can probably get by with street shoes for a while, to make really good progress with learning techniques properly (and avoid risk of injury), eventually you will need the right shoes. 

 

What shoes to wear for beginners

If you are going to your first tango class and don’t know what to expect, or are not sure whether you will want to keep doing it, we recommend trying it out in suitable street shoes. Unless you don’t mind spending the money, there’s no point buying purpose-made dance shoes if you’re not going to use them. 

 

Women – court shoes or Mary Janes are your best bet

For women, court shoes with an elevated heel 4-6 cm high could work. It is important to have some height to get a feel for the technique of dancing in them. I wouldn’t recommend anything taller early on, especially if you’re not already used to dancing in heels. Shoes should fit snugly, and be neither too long or wide, which would make shoes too floppy or awkward. Court shoes have a closed toe cap which will protect your toes from your partners’ feet in class.  Soles (or the underneath part of your shoe) should be thin, flexible and relatively smooth. The best would be smooth leather. Thick, layered rubber with treads is not suitable.

Better than court shoes are Mary Janes because they have ankle straps to give more security. Just remember to fasten the buckle strap sufficiently so that it is not loose around your ankles. Consider making extra holes in the strap if necessary.

For ladies who are not keen on heels or don’t have a pair but still want to try tango classes, you could also try ballet flats. Thick soled pumps or platforms with chunky heels are not recommended because they are harder for beginners to get a feel for the dance in.

 

Men – thin, leather-soled rounded-toe shoes are a good option

For beginner men, I recommend any relatively thin, smooth soled shoe that fits snugly. Traditional leather Oxford or Derby styles with laces and untreaded leather soles could work, or loafers (but they need to feel secure without laces) or plimsoll-style leather or canvas sneakers (but with as smooth a sole as possible). It is very important regardless of style that the shoe’s lip at the front is rounded and protrudes as little as possible to reduce the risk of colliding with your partner’s toes. Wear good socks to reduce chafing and blisters!

Thick soled running shoes with deep treads and lots of grip are not recommended. Formal leather shoes may be okay especially if they have smooth leather soles, but try to avoid those with a thick front lip or have very structured uppers, almost resembling boots, as they may not be flexible enough to dance in.

For men and women, if you have danced some other partner dance before, like ballroom, bachata or jive, and have dance shoes for them, you can also use them for tango at this stage. Typically they have suede or leather soles. They are closer to tango dance shoes than street shoes, and will help you get a better feel for the dance.

 

When you’re ready for your first tango shoes

You’ve been taking a few classes to dance tango. It’s fun. You can imagine yourself doing this for a while and going to milongas regularly. You can do “the basics” but you really want to get better at it. In other words, you’re ready to “get serious” about tango. It’s probably the right time to get proper tango shoes!

Tango shoes are made for the specifics of the dance. In the milonga, you will be walking, pivoting and pausing on either foot a lot. You will be improvising and changing direction while circulating the room in the ronda, not staying in the same space you started in. Your feet are mere centimetres away from your partner’s, and often not far from other couples’. You will not be jumping or pointing your feet much, nor moving as energetically as some other dances. You will be transferring your weight across every millimetre of the soles of your feet. You’re aiming for smooth, precise, controlled movements.

 

Your first pair – prioritise functionality over looks

So what tango shoes should beginners wear? You will be using them a lot in classes and practice, and to your first milongas. You’ll want shoes that help you learn the right technique and can take a lot of use. Although they don’t have to be expensive, check they are well-made and with good materials. Chafing, blisters and pain will get in the way of your learning and enjoyment. Poor quality shoes often lose structure and stability very quickly. Think of your first pair as an investment. Your future self will thank you for it.

Men – Our advice for you is fairly simple in addition to what we’ve said already. Suede or brushed leather soles that give you enough grip on a smooth floor but also smooth enough to pivot. Laces, so you can adjust to fit securely. Snug fit but enough room to stand with feet flat to the floor. A classic black Derby or Oxford is the style of choice for 90% of first time buyers and is versatile enough for classes, practicas and milongas.

 

Men's black leather tango shoes in profile.
Our ‘Palermo’ men’s shoe is a classic Derby style all-leather shoe. Notice the small “lip” of sole that does not extend beyond the rounded toe cap.The sole is suede and very thin.

 

For women – it is a little more complicated, so bear with me and read on please!

 

High heels – don’t be afraid to start low!

High heel stiletto sandals are the most available style currently. It is a good idea to try them so that you will have more options to choose from. When well-designed and made, they are incredibly stable when you stand with your full weight in them. They don’t wobble when you walk, are thin enough for you to “feel the floor” when you transfer weight, and let you pivot smoothly on the ball of your foot. The heel spike is positioned a few centimetres forward from the end of the back of the shoe, close to your ankle (where your vertical body axis connects with your foot). The spike holds fast when you move like an extension of your foot, and you feel “grounded” and “on your axis”. In short, when you use the right technique, you are confident of fully committing to your movement and trust your step. It should feel as effortless as possible.

A lower heel around 7 – 7.5 cm in vertical height is sufficient for most people. There are slightly different ways to measure heel height, but because of the inclination involved, this is how we do ours for a true measurement. The most common height is around 8 – 8.5 cm, and if you feel confident, then go for it. I wouldn’t recommend any higher so soon as it takes time for your muscles to strengthen and adapt.

 

Open vs closed heel – go for what makes you feel secure

Straps. Many beginners ask if they should get an “open” or “closed” heel. It is a personal choice with no right or wrong answer. It depends on the shape of your heel. Our advice is to try both and see which one you feel more comfortable in. Some women find the closed heel more secure because there is more material enclosing the heel and you get more tactile feedback. Other women prefer an “open” heel because they find the closed one restrictive and cramps their foot harder into the front toe strap.

 

3 heel heights of ladies tango shoes with open and closed heel cages.
Our low (7.5 cm), medium (8.5 cm) and high (9.5 cm) heel heights for women’s shoes. The low and high ones have an “open” heel, and the medium one has a “closed” heel. Style: ‘Jamas Retornaras‘.

 

How tight should the shoes be?

They should feel snug and not feel loose on your foot, but they should also have enough room for you to flatten your forefoot when you stand with your full weight in them, with no need to scrunch your toes. If you stand in the shoes for a bit, they should not indent deep red lines on your skin (too tight). 

There should be a half to three-quarter centimetre of shoe lip visible at the front beyond your toes. Your toes shouldn’t be hanging off the lip or you might get collisions with your toe nails. If you have too much lip (i.e. shoe is too long), you increase the chances of it catching the floor when you step.

Some dancers advise to choose one size smaller than your street shoes. This works for some people as a rule of thumb. However in our experience it varies from person to person. The best course would be to try different sizes on and feel for yourself. Be aware there’s a lot of research that 60-70% of people aren’t aware that they’re wearing the wrong sized shoes.

Finally, when asked what tango shoes should beginners wear, some people say that shoes made for other Latin American dances like bachata or salsa are good enough. How different are they? Does it matter? You can read our take here and make up your own mind.

 

Don’t forget to look after your feet

Good shoes make you less tired over the long term as you need less muscle effort to maintain your balance. However, you will be exerting your feet physically. If you make a little effort to look after them, and they will in turn look after you! You can read here for some self-care tips.

 

10 top tips when choosing tango shoes

  1. If you’re new to this, try them on in person. Nothing beats your first-hand experience. Consider bringing along a more experienced tango friend for an other opinion.
  2. Bring your current shoes for dancing with you, so you can compare how they feel. If they’re no better than what you have, then it may not be a good idea to buy them.
  3. Try on shoes in the afternoon or evening, not morning. Your feet are closer to “normal” size after a few hours of being awake and using them.
  4. Your feet will swell when warmed up with dancing, though the amount varies from person to person. Bear that in mind when feeling out the new shoes.
  5. It’s worthwhile to measure your feet and get to know their shape well. You can find out more about how to do so here. Sizes are determined by foot length, but different makers size them a little differently, so for example an EU size 37 for one brand may be a size 38 for a different brand. The same applies to widths.
  6. As a natural material, leather will stretch a bit as it molds to the shape of your foot, but shouldn’t completely lose shape or size with reasonable use if made of good quality. 
  7. Men – bring good clean socks of the same type that you normally wear for tango. 
  8. Women – when inspecting high heels, check they are vertically aligned when the shoes are sitting on a flat surface, from the side and back. Avoid heels that are “pointing backwards” or “forwards”. They are more liable to feel unstable.
  9. If in doubt between two different pairs of shoes you like, wear one on each foot so you can compare them better.
  10. If you’re still in doubt, pick the style you feel more comfortable (and confident) with. In the long term, you’ll care a lot how your feet feel rather than look.

 

Final thoughts

Finding what tango shoes should beginners wear can take some effort, but it is a worthwhile investment. Ask your teachers and more experienced friends for their advice, but make up your own mind after listening. After all, you are responsible for your own feet!

One final thought – consider finding a seller who can let you try on shoes in person before buying. It is the best way to learn about your feet and what fits you best. For example, we offer private fittings by appointment in our London studio. Our ethos is to help dancers find what is right for them. We don’t “hard sell” to customers because we believe if dancers are not happy with them, they won’t wear them or come back. We have seen hundreds of different feet and are deeply involved in our shoe-making in Spain, and are happy to offer our advice to dancers. You can read what our customers say about our shoes and the shopping experience with us here.

Good luck with shoe shopping and see you in the milonga! 🙂

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