Formal Dance Shoes: A (Mostly) Comprehensive Guide

At anime convention formal dances, there's often a fairly strict dress code describing various hemlines and styles of dress that are appropriate. Footwear is described, but often clumsily, and for those who are unfamiliar with styles of dance shoe and how they function, even the Black and White Ball's "nickel-sized or larger heel" rule can seem confusing.

I want to provide this resource for anyone who might be wondering what footwear is appropriate and/or optimal for formal dances. This is not a standard set of rules by any means, but it will help you understand where coordinators are coming from. The worst feeling in the world is when I have to turn someone away based on footwear when it could have easily been avoided if the party had understood!

As a precursor, these standards are set by the expectation that there will be a traditional wooden dance floor (the kind you might see at a wedding reception). Be aware that not all conventions have this type of floor! It might be carpet or concrete, in which cases my recommendation might change, but they still hold dance shoes higher than other types of shoes.


GOD TIER: Ballroom/Latin Shoes

Styles for "Women"1

American Smooth

These shoes are closed-toe, often no taller than 2.5". Although they are closed-toe, many styles have an ankle strap. They have suede soles and may have satin or leather uppers. Examples can be found here.2

International Standard

These shoes are also closed-toe, often no taller than 2.5", and often enclose one's entire foot. They may have a buckle, but generally either come with an "invisible" elastic band to keep the shoe on the foot or are sized exactly to a dancer's foot to the point where they don't come off when bent. They have suede soles and may have satin or leather uppers.

American Rhythm

These shoes are peep-toe and can have a T-strap closure or regular straps, often no taller than 2.5". They have suede soles and may have satin or leather uppers.

International Latin

The tallest, strappiest, loudest shoe of all, and my personal favorite: the Latin sandal. It's entirely secured by straps of various kinds, with buckles you can adjust. Height is typically 2.5". It can go up to 3.5" for competitive dancers, but I wouldn't recommend that height unless you've been at this for a while. They have suede soles and may have satin or leather uppers.

Salsa club sandals

These are pretty much the same as International Latin shoes, but the standard height is 3-4". They also usually come with slightly different strap/upper designs that might resemble street shoes, and usually have more colors to choose from. The idea is that these shoes are acceptable for tight-space dance like in a Latin dance club, and sometimes I feel like dance floors at anime conventions can get quite crowded. They have suede soles and may have satin or leather uppers.

Styles for "Men"1

American Smooth/International Standard

Options for men are more limited. Typically, this shoe is an "oxford" style, possibly patent-leather upper shoe with a smooth bottom. This will be your go-to shoe for all things dance related! You'll want to polish any patent leather regularly.

American Rhythm/International Latin

You don't have to wear a Cuban heel in Rhythm by any means, but this is where it comes in handy for helping you attain hip movements, which Latin dance is all about. These shoes typically have a 1.5" heel. Unless you're dancing exclusively Latin, you don't need to invest in Cuban heels, but they are pretty fun to dance in if you're not used to a heel and you'll notice a difference. They also have suede soles for grip.

Wingtip/"Spectator" Shoes

I'm not an expert in swing, but I think these are a popular style for men's shoes if you're exclusively a swing dancer.

Investing in these types of shoes

If you ever want to compete or do showcases...

If you think you might ever want to take lessons and compete in ballroom dancing outside of conventions, the first shoe I recommend is the Latin sandal for people with women's shoe preferences, and the ballroom oxford for people with men's shoe preferences. You can wear these shoes in all dances regardless of the competition you're in.

If you aren't planning to compete...

Go with whatever feels best for your style! At anime convention formal dances, you probably won't have time or desire to change shoes between music tracks. So get what you're most comfortable with and what feels best for you.

Pro tip: Heel protectors

Buy heel protectors for heeled shoes! They make your shoes last longer and don't wear down the rubber, which eventually exposes the metal spike. Some studios or venues require that you wear them. Heel protectors also increase the width of your heel, which means heels that are just under a nickel-width might be brought up to the nickel-width requirement. If you're a cosplayer with a heat gun, putting them on is super easy!

Pro tip: DO NOT WEAR THESE SHOES OUTSIDE

Not only will wearing these shoes outside of the event room bring in dirt from outside and put it directly on the dance floor, thus dirtying everyone else's shoes, but they'll also potentially ruin your soles for future dancing entirely. Think of it as the same concept as when Japanese people change shoes when they're inside their homes. Treat the dance floor and your shoes with respect!


TOP TIER

Ballroom/Latin practice shoes

This type of shoe usually has a shorter, wider base than competition shoes. It may be peep-toe or strappy sandal or have laces in the front. They're great for when you have to be on your feet for hours in a non-competition setting. They have suede soles.

Character Shoes

These shoes have smooth bottoms and straps (either ankle or T-straps). Ask your local theater kid—these are great on any kind of stage or dance floor! They're a good alternative for Smooth/Standard shoes.

Jazz Flats or Ballet Slippers

While lacking in support, these are still acceptable on any dance floor.

Other Smooth-soled Shoes

I'm sure I'm missing some kind of shoe, here, but as long as it has a smooth sole, it's relatively safe for the dance floor.


ACCEPTABLE TIER

These shoes are allowed into most or all formal balls and are an acceptable choice if you're going to dance.

Function-over-form (aka battle-damaged) practice shoes

I debated putting practice shoes in "top tier" because I know that some ballroom practice shoes have a very nice quality and are comfortable. However, for the most part, these events are still formal or semiformal in nature, and I know that my own practice shoes look pretty beaten up.

Heels with a base wider than a nickel-width and a strap

If your shoes have a decently wide base and a strap to keep them on, that's good enough for me. Preferably these shoes would have smooth soles.

Flats with smooth soles

If your flats have felt, suede, or leather bottoms, they're okay. If they don't have a strap, consider getting ones that have elastic around the top so that they stay on your foot.


QUESTIONABLE TIER

This tier is reserved for shoes that are still allowed into most or all formal balls, however, I don't recommend them for safety and comfort reasons.

Rubber-soled shoes of any kind

These types of shoes can cause skids on the floor, equaling extra time and effort for the people responsible for cleaning up. Beyond this, even though a lot of rubber-soled shoes offer support in ways that dance shoes flat-out don't, you have a greater risk of injuring your knees long-term from the stress you must exert to create turns. I don't like seeing rubber-soled shoes on dance floors. However, if you have a shoe with a rubber sole and you'd still like to wear it when you dance, I recommend this nifty little device: the dance sock. Slip it over the rubber part and you'll be able to turn without extra exertion on your knees!

(A solution can be found at here!)

Wedges

While wedges aren't bad for general foot support, I'm not sure I recommend them. There are different styles within wedges and while you may find one that works for you, I personally feel like my movement is restricted and I have a harder time of judging where my heel will land on the floor. So you could absolutely wear them to these events, but I'm not sure you'll be happy with the quality of your dancing.

Platform Heels

Yes, I know. I love platform heels. They do provide more support than any shoe I've danced in. But they're also death traps. I've seen women in salsa classes who try to wear them and can only do minimal movements. Platforms are extremely prohibitive to turns, bouncy steps like swing, stepping backward like in any traveling dance, and just general movement. Please don't wear them if you're going to attempt to dance.

Heels over 3.5" tall

If you're reading this, you're probably not a professional dancer. Please don't try wearing tall heels if you're inexperienced in either dance or simply walking in them. You need ankle strength and endurance for that kind of shoe and they're not the best for dancing in, especially on any dance floor an anime con could provide.

Shoes you might wear to a wedding

I'm thinking of women's styles of heels that don't have straps or strappy sandals with rubber soles. But basically, this covers anything you might say looks "fancy" but doesn't fit the description of the shoes above.

Some types of boots

Well-polished boots without laces or distracting elements are often accepted at formal balls. However, they do still constrict foot movement and might encourage trudging. If they have rubber soles, that will again put you at risk for skids, knee strain, and general discomfort when dancing.

Cosplay shoes that aren't dance shoes

I know, I know. The costume is best with matching shoes. I still suggest to my attendees that they email me if they're concerned their cosplay shoes aren't up to code, but overall my suggestion is rather this: instead of wearing the shoes you wore with your fancy costume earlier in the day, wouldn't it be better to give your feet a break and wear a dance-based, cosplay-inspired shoe? Just while you're dancing. An example is when I used to wear Cinder Fall to con formals, I'd wear the platforms into the venue, then take them off and put on my Latin heels that I take with me in a shoe bag. There was no way I was going to try to dance in those heels, even if there might be photos of me taken in the cosplay in the alternate dance shoes.


NO TIER

These styles of shoe are (IDEALLY) not permitted at my events.

Stilettos

Literally means "daggers" in Italian. My former instructor (a very well-trained professional) once put the heel of her shoe THROUGH A MAN'S FOOT during the jive. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone on the dance floor, trained or not. It's a safety thing. No stilettos.

Sneakers

With the exception being disability/extreme shoe sizes, I disallow sneakers. They're simply not formal and they have rubber soles, which equals danger. Again, I do make exceptions based on individual needs, but CONTACT US AHEAD OF TIME. If you don't have clearance, I don't know the difference between someone with true needs and someone trying to cheat the system.

Sandals with no back strap/Flip flops

This should go without saying, but if your shoe comes off in the middle of the dance floor, that's gonna be a hazard to everyone around you. Your shoe needs to have something securing the back.

Combat boots

I typically disallow combat boots at my formals. The reasons are safety first (rubber sole) and formality second (even members of the military wear better shoes for formal events). They aren't formal boots or dance shoes, and they could scuff up the floor.

Pointe shoes/tap shoes

These shoes are for a different kind of dancing that should be saved for showcases and do not reflect social partner dancing.

Bare Feet

They're banned at most public venues anyway due to existing regulations.

My ONLY exception to this rule at an actual formal is if someone comes in with platform heels or sandals-during-casual-hour and makes it apparent they're struggling with the footwear. During lessons, I ask that anyone with disruptive footwear take it off so that they can learn their body's natural movements. (Listen, you can take the girl out of the modern dance...) This is a last resort, though.


Other Tips For Your Comfort

Try on shoes in the evening

I grew up with this as a no-brainer because I have wide feet that are hard to fit. Because you're on your feet all day, they tend to swell more in the evening. If you purchase dance shoes that fit at 9am but plan on doing your dancing or formalwear more around 9pm, you're probably going to notice a difference in the fit. My best recommendation for these and all types of shoes is to try them on when your feet are at their "largest."

Shoe brush

If you have a suede-soled shoe such as the ballroom options above, it would be wise for you to invest in what's called a "shoe brush." They usually run under $10 and are sometimes included in bundled shoe packages online. When your shoes become "flatter" or "shiny" on the bottom, it's time to give them a brush! That gives you back the traction you need so you don't slip or trip on a slippery or sticky dance floor. It's recommended that you do it fairly frequently, and over a trash can so the brushed-off bits don't collect on the floor. I've seen people scratch their shoes with their nails in a pinch during a competition--try not to put yourself in that position!

"Wearing in" your shoes

If your shoes have leather uppers, you can break them in fairly simply by spraying water on them and wearing them around the house. If they don't, they're not going to stretch much over time. It's up to you how much pain you want to endure.

Chopping off the front of the sole

Wide-footed people, where you at?? The thing about most shoes that aren't men's or practice shoes is that they rarely have a "wide" option that's wide enough for my foot. I'm technically around 6.5 but 4E wide, but I've had people fit me up to size 8 to accommodate width. This has resulted in floppy toes and a hard time gripping the floor thanks to the spillover length. For anyone else who wants to wear Latin sandal heels and has wide feet, this is my method: if you can buy a shoe that runs in "wide," buy it. Make sure that the length of the strap portion still covers the top of your foot so that you can point without the straps slipping off your foot. Then, if you're brave and feel like you want your toes on the dance floor for better grip (I hear some pros do this), chop off the front of the base juuuust a little bit and seal it with some glue.

Epsom salts

After a night of being on your feet, they're bound to swell. When you get back to your place of lodging, fill the bathtub or a basin with warm water and epsom salts and soak your achy feet.

Athletic or cloth tape

I call it "toe tape" because I wrap it around my toes but it's just cloth tape strips that you can use on areas of your shoes that may bother you. Again, wide feet, but anywhere on your foot that receives extra pressure from your shoes could develop a blister, corn, or callus. Wrap it a couple times around the affected toe(s) and make sure you're not cutting off circulation! And don't wrap it around anything but your toes, as it will limit your movement and slide off with sweat most days. These are prone to come off with lots of sweat and movement, so just be careful.

Bandaids

Be sure to have some in your dance bag in a couple sizes. Also, kids, don't pop your blisters. You'll get infected and die.

Dress bustling/hem length

This isn't a "shoe" tip necessarily, but if your dress/skirt/outfit in general goes below your ankle, you're at risk for catching your heel in it and falling. The obvious suggestion is "don't purchase/make outfits with that length," but as a cosplayer and fan of twirly things, I know it's not always plausible or desirable. So, for outfits that require it, a quick safety pin hem or bustle is a decent fix if you want to wear the outfit long outside of the dance, and then not trip during the dance. If you're sincerely worried about the safety pins ruining your outfit, maybe select a different one for dancing and get pictures of it separately. Again, as a cosplayer, I've noticed that even at events I don't run, the atmosphere isn't necessarily one I'd want to get nice pictures in. Some places have designated photo booths or areas outside to take pictures that are nicely decorated. But realize that that's different from what you actually dance in! On the same note, I definitely wear a shorter version of long wigs if I intend to actually dance at a formal. It saves you the trouble later and you can still wear your nice long wig for pictures outside of the dance.


FAQ

I don't know where to try on real dance shoes in my area!

If you don't know where your local brick-and-mortar dance store is and you can't guess based on where dance studios for ballet/jazz/tap are, Google is your best friend, and then also calling the place you might find. Let them know ahead of time what your needs are and they'll try to help as best they can. I know, we're millennials, we hate calling—but it'll be worth it for your first pair.

Why do so many women's shoes primarily come in skin tones?

For all women's shoes, it's common to see skin tone colors (which I use LOOSELY, as they always need more "skin" or "nude" colors for darker skin; funny how Europe can steal the dances of indigenous people yet not accommodate their corner of the shoe market) as the primary options for all shoes. In competitions, the idea is to 1. Lengthen the look of your leg and 2. Not distract the judges (in other words, to camouflage any sloppy footwork). For example, if everyone else on the floor had shoes that matched their skin tone but you had neon fuschia shoes, the judges will be looking way more intensely at your feet. If you ever want to compete and not just social dance, definitely look for shoes that could match your skin tone. If you don't, wear whatever color you like!

You said the floor might have different surfaces depending on which con you go to. How can we prepare for that?

I'll answer your FAQ with a question I also frequently ask of conventions—reach out to the appropriate con department (usually "main" or "live" events, or may even be dedicated to formal ball) and ask them, "Do you know what the surface of the formal ball dance floor is going to be? Carpet, concrete, portable dance floor units, something else?" And be prepared for their answer to be "I don't know." Unless a convention has been very consistent, don't assume a previous year's setup will apply. Regardless, for carpet, I bring alternate dance shoes from the "top" tier above--my jazz flats. For an actual floor, I bring my Latin heels and brush. For concrete (I haven't had this yet, but it may be in my future), I might do another "top" tier alternative; however, dancing on concrete for extended periods of time leads to injury and I'd be sure to tell the organizers that! If I'm unsure of what the floor will be, I'll assume both carpet and real floor and bring two pairs, since my jazz flats are, well, flat. Not to mention, if I'm dancing most or all of the night, it's nice to have a pair of shoes to change into when my feet inevitably hurt.

What if I can't afford dance shoes or they don't come in my unique shoe size?

I'm absolutely willing to work with you if you want to attend a formal but have certain restrictions. Simply email me ahead of time and we can work something out. Please contact me as soon as possible and try not to contact me the week before the event.

They let me wear those shoes at [Other Event]! Why aren't you letting me in?

Tl;dr: tough cookies. Longer;dr: If it was a previous event of mine, there's a good chance the event had poor security and communication with me regarding the dress code. I do apologize that it wasn't made clear to you at that time. If it wasn't my event, tougher cookies. This is something I do consistently to ensure everyone's safety during the event, and I promise it's nothing personal. I can't guarantee this standard for anyone else.

Why don't they make more dance shoes for wide feet?

Just kidding, this isn't FAQ. This is my personal question because my feet hurt and I'm tired, dammit. Are there any shoemakers out there who wanna give me an answer and/or help me design some shoes for my wide-ass feet? Please and thanks.


1. I'm using gendered terms because unfortunately the world of ballroom still conforms to a binary and it's easier to find the shoes on google with this terminology. However, don't feel like you have to conform to the assignment. As they say, if the shoe fits, wear it!
2. Links go to external sites and do not indicate endorsement.

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