Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
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.
Alternatives to Flamenco Shoes for Beginners
Search for "flamenco shoes" on Amazon and you'll get results like Capezio's Footlight or Manhattan character shoes. DO NOT BUY THEM! They may look the same shape, but they are completely unsuitable for flamenco.
Ballroom, jazz and character shoes are designed to be flexible, so you can bend your foot and point your toe. Soft, flexible shoes are useless in flamenco and will make it much harder to master the steps.
I'm often asked how to add tacks to character or Broadway shoes. Please don't even try. Firstly, they are not suitable in the first place. 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, a pair of sturdy street shoes are often a much better bet than dance shoes. For women, Mary Janes or lace-ups are a good match, but look at the strength of the shoe, too. For men, a pair of cowboy boots or riding boots may be the best option—anything with a Cuban heel, because a heel is essential, even for men! Heels make it much easier to do any footwork involving heel strikes.
Check the criteria for choosing a good flamenco shoe (below), and see what you have in your wardrobe that comes closest.
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!
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!
How to Choose the Right Size
Dance shoes have to fit the foot snugly - so 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 too snug, they will never be comfortable. Too-small shoes will affect your balance too, 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 neatly, 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?
Of course, one of the things we're looking forward to with our first flamenco shoes is that satisfying noise when they hit the floor. Sadly, it's something you have to pay for, and your first shoes aren't likely to sound as impressive as the professional ones worn by your teacher. 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! When you eventually graduate to a pair of $200 shoes, you'll be amazed at how good you sound...
Finally, remember everyone's feet are different - go with what works for you, not with what other people tell you is the "best" shoe.
Gallardos (pictured above) are almost indestructible and have an amazing sound, so they are often cited as the "best shoes in the world". However, they won't suit you if you have bunions. 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.
Sadly, the one excellent source of flamenco shoes - Salvio's in Sydney - have closed down after 135 years in business. They developed their shoe in conjunction with a Sydney flamenco school, based on the Gallardo flamenco shoe.
Sansha makes a flamenco shoe which is stocked by several dance shops around Australia. It looks OK, and it's fairly cheap, but nowhere near the same rigidity and quality as a proper Spanish shoe.
Kimberly Schimmel from North Carolina, USA on July 27, 2014:
Well, I learned a lot. I didn't realize how different flamenco shoes are from character, tap, or ballroom shoes.
Shibboleth on July 27, 2014: