Surviving High Heels - Part I: The Myths

My  "minimalist" shoe for training, and my Neotango shoe for the milonga.

Common Myths about Wearing High Heels

I want to help dancers dance well not just now, but for a lifetime - and that means taking a very critical look at how we treat our feet.  As long as I dance tango, I will (probably) wear high heels at least some of the time. They are an accepted, even encouraged, part of the tango culture. I also consult with dancers on how to train their feet, legs and hips to be able to wear high heels while minimizing the damage that the shoes do. However, while I can help you be more comfortable in and out of your high heels, they are still damaging your feet, knees, hips and even your back


"Platform shoes or wedges are better for your feet/posture/back."

False - in fact they may do even more damage, and pose more of a risk for your ankles.

Platform shoes and wedges tend to have rigid foot beds. "That throws off the biomechanics of walking," Hillary Brenner says. "Your foot is trying to bend a certain way, but the shoe is fighting you because it's so rigid." If the heel of the platform is much higher than the toe area, the shoe also puts pressure on the metatarsal bones. Hillary Brenner, DPM, spokeswoman, American Podiatric Medical Association. Platform shoes turn your foot into a block, with the only mobility coming from the ankle. Now your ankle must do all of the work stabilize you - which is not what it was designed to do. It actually puts your ankles (and knees) more at risk for injury.


"You can use inserts or insoles to prevent damage.
"

True and False - While foam or gel inserts can offer shock absorption, they can also further restrict the mobility of your foot. Orthotics and inserts are great short term solutions that can help alleviate the side effects of poorly fitting shoes or an unnatural gait, but they don't actually fix the problem. In the long term they can create more problems related to constricting the mobility of the foot. 


"The pain will get better once you "break in" the shoe."

False - you're not really breaking in the shoes, you're more likely breaking in your feet. Your feet will adapt to the shoe far faster than leather can be "broken" to mold to your foot. Our feet are magnificently adaptable and will adjust to the demands we place on them - usually by shifting the dysfunction up our bodies. If we can't flex our feet properly, we put pressure on the ankles. When the ankles can't cope with the dysfunction (because they're being made to do work they weren't built for), the damage just keeps traveling up the body to the knees, hips and back.

Second, any shoe you buy needs to fit your foot when you put it on. Period. Shop for shoes when you've been on your feet for awhile, or at the end of the work day, and make sure they fit well.  I had a tango shoe salesperson tell me, in the span of 5 minutes that one pair of shoes (that was too big) would mold to my foot with wear and that a second pair of shoes (that was too small) would stretch to fit almost immediately.  *sigh*  Does anyone remember the British comedy "Are You Being Served?" - it's like being told, "It will ride up with wear." If the shoe doesn't fit, put it back. A poorly fitted shoe will harm your dance, and your body.


"Just keep practicing in them until you get used to them."

False - Same as above - you're simply making your body shift the dysfunction to parts of the body that weren't designed to do that work. The only way to train your feet to wear high heels well and mitigate some of the damage being done, is to exercise your feet outside of the high heels. How can you train your foot if you can't use the full range of motion of your muscles, joints and tendons?


"The Icon of Femininity?"

This was one argument I was not prepared for and it came in the form of a lengthy email from a tango dancer in Europe. She wrote that high heels were "The Icon" of femininity - the symbol of the fashionable, elegant woman. I'm not arguing that high heels are an iconic image in femininity, I just don't want it to be the iconic image of femininity. I would like to believe that we can be the powerful image of all that is beautiful in the female form without doing damage to our bodies. I refuse to believe that women are just naturally masochists who derive satisfaction from suffering for fashion (yes, someone really wrote that) - http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/oct/28/fashion.

(Climbing off the soapbox.)

In dance, as in daily life, shoes are tools - they work for you, not the other way around. Make sure your tools are doing what you need them to do, rather than making your life, and your dance, harder. Your body is how you express yourself and interact with the world. It is through the body that we express our art as dancers of any dance. Treat it well.


Further sources:

New York Magazine, "You Walk Wrong"
Katy Bowman's Everyone Woman's Guide to Foot Pain Relief and the DVD, "Fix Your Feet"
John Vonhof's "Fixing your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes"

4 comments:

  1. I had always have doubts and have make mistakes when buying a shoe. When I feel very tired I change my shows into ballerinas and like magic I can stand on the balls of my feet taller.
    Thanks for your advice Mari!

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  2. You're so welcome @ggluna - sometimes changing shoes can change everything!

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  3. If it hurts, stop doing it.

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  4. I agree with this blog. From my experience, I would say that it all depends upon your dance practices. If you practice dance with wearing heels, then surefire, you will be able to dance wearing heels.

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