Ah heels, one tiny sharp little piece of iconography that in one fell swoop has the ability to imbue us with the grace of a goddess, or dent the ego as you stumble around like Bambi learning to walk. Needless to say, I’m talking about DANCING in heels, not walking in them (although this may be the case if having had one too many- I’ll have a gin ‘n’ tonic please.)
So often with dance and heels we take it as a given, it’s assumed rather than seen as something that needs separate attention but heels just like pointe work require time and dedication to gain command and mastery of. I remember finding this out the hard way when I first did Ashley Nottingham’s class at pineapple (absolutely amazing class by the way!) You only have to watch Yannis Marshall working it (see YouTube) to know that, daaaaamn, that requires work.
As with anything, it depends what you are required to do in them- more placed commercial work for example might not have the same demand as doing jetes and pose turns in them- but if you are wanting to do intricate work that specifically requires you being nifty on your feet and able to execute things much as you would in a ballet class, do not be surprised to find that at first you may have to go back to baby steps. For example, yes, you can do a fondu or a grande ronde de jambe, that’s great! Now can you do it in heels?
So I would say if you truly want to become proficient in this area, just like you would with pointe work, you need to set aside time to make it a priority and do it REGULARLY.
I would suggest a two pronged approach to becoming kick ass in this area. #1 If the shoe fits (let’s get the right training tool) and #2 of course the magic that is technique!
So The Basics- The Shoe Itself…
#1 Do not underestimate how different a shoe that’s made specifically to dance in compared to a normal heel will feel on your foot. I had no idea until I bought my first pair (after doing a show in normal ones) and boy did it make a difference! Don’t forget they are made with dancing and heels choreography in mind so do yourself a favour and invest. A pair of New Yorkers should be all you need to start with. At the cheaper end of the spectrum they are versatile and can be used for both training and professional purposes.
#2 Start with a smaller heel. Yes, whilst it may be tempting to make a grab for the tallest shoes on the shelf, it is best like with all things to work up to it. A 2 inch heel is great and in fact whether you’re new to heels or not I’d recommend them as a staple of any dancers wardrobe as there is work which lends itself to a shorter heel. Trust me, when the choreography is intricate and you’re building strength you’ll be grateful for that lost inch! This will also make it much easier to entrench the habit of working on your toes (more on that later.)
#3 Get them rubbered! This is a massively important one. Whilst rosin is an alternative, a lot of dance studios don’t like you using it in their rooms (dance works even forbids it.)
Specifically you want to ask for diamond rubber. Unlike traditional flat grooves on the bottom of a shoe, it is 3D so the grip on the floor you get from it is second to none. In London, you can get this done at Bedford court (behind the coliseum) They do all the show shoes in London so they will know exactly what you’re asking for- just ask for diamond rubber.)
Handy tip: after you’ve had it done, scuff the shoes up just a little, as this will help you be able to turn in them and stop you feeling too stuck to the floor.
#4 Find a shoe with good ankle support. Speaks for itself really!
#5 Consider a sturdier heel. This will give you the support and confidence to really tackle all sorts of difficult feats and will act as a bridge between you and your technique.
#6 As you progress, opt for a split sole.
As you become more proficient, and are dealing with more and more demanding choreography, it may be a good idea to opt for shoes with a split sole. This will help as they hug your feet a lot more and enable you to feel the floor more. Obviously, it also allows more flexibility in the foot itself which also helps you be more fluid and controlled, and makes for a prettier line as you can point your feet!
And Now To Our Part- Heels Technique!
#1 Most of the time for heels choreography you should be working on your toes (for example, when you’re stepping, your heel shouldn’t generally touch the ground- although obviously this depends on what your doing!) But as a general rule you are working in a state of releve, so in this sense a lot of ballet technique applies. Which brings us to:
#2 For heels work ballet is your best friend, so take a ballet class. Like I said you’re in a permanent state of releve, and this is not a coincidence! That’s right, before we wore pumps, where ballet originated, in the French court, it was done in heels!
#3 Whilst we’re on the subject of ballet, engage your glutes and think of the front of the leg and the hip lengthening. This is because when we’re in heels, it naturally tilts our weight and our pelvis forward. A good exercise is to practise this just when standing and also to include it in conditioning. This is because you need it to kick in automatically when you’re moving- there isn’t time to think about this on top of everything else when you’re dancing- it will make you stir crazy, so muscle memory is key here.
#4 Think of your heels as an extension of your leg. Your movements should be fluid so this requires practise. It also means you need to work more to compensate e.g. when you bend, you may need to bend more to compensate, to avoid it looking stiff.
#5 Strength training- particularly that gives you a wide range of movement. For example, lunges are great for this. This is so that in heels when you’re dancing wide you have the strength not to fall over.
Also include in your conditioning time, anything that gets your quads (seat muscles) firing along with your pelvic floor (core) muscles. All of this will really help you be able to dance on your leg as opposed to off of it and keep your centre of balance where it needs to be for maximum control.
#6 Think of leading with your hips (whilst still being aware that your weight doesn’t drop back.) This will really help give a feeling of conviction and intention when you move, as well as giving your body a natural fluidity.
#7 Practise standing on one leg. Some things you can only learn by FEEL. Do this often to get used to finding where your body weight should fall. This will also help strengthen your ankles and help you knock on the head any niggling habits (like tilting your hips) before they start. Make sure, just like with tap, you practise with your leg devant (to the front), a la seconde (to the side) and derrière (to the back.) This will set you up beautifully for every position you might need to hit.
#8 Wear them round the house.
Just like you would with pointe shoes wearing them round the house is a perfect way to get used to heels bit by bit and a great way to multitask dancing with your everyday chores! Hello housework!
#9 To get strong, practise in the centre. That’s right- fondus, grande ronde de jambe, kicks, pirouettes.
#10 Make sure you practise still fully extending the leg. Just like with pointe work the tendency is to bring the leg back under us rather than to extend it and fully step onto it. The same transfers across to heels. This includes making sure you fully extend your leg movements e.g. on balances etc. Don’t sacrifice the movements and make them small or messy e.g. not straightening your knee before you step onto the leg.
#11 Where applicable, fish the foot.
This is where you sickle the foot slightly the wrong way, in a way that looks pretty. This should be used with care, and only ever on your fee leg, NEVER the leg you are standing on.
#12 Engage your shoulder blades. Roll your shoulder blades back (you can do this by rolling your shoulders back and down) and with your core think of pulling it in and up.
Phew that’s a lot of information, if you’re anything like me you probably now want to go and brew a cuppa as a reward just for getting through it! So for future reference, check out my quick fire checklist below:
Summary: Your Dance And Heels 101.
- Be on your toes. A lot of the time, you’re working in a state of releve (IN THESE INSTANCES YOUR HEEL SHOULD NOT TOUCH THE GROUND.)
- Engage your core and learn how to adjust your weight placement.
- Don’t sacrifice depth of movement, elongate the moves just like you would in flats and don’t cut corners!
- Apply ballet technique- use your inner thighs and engage your seat muscles.
- Pulling up is just as apt and essential as in ballet. The aim is to feel lighter so test yourself by asking- how does this feel, light or heavy?
- Engage your shoulder blades
- Do strength training for wide range movement.
- Keep your weight forward and lengthen so your pelvis doesn’t tilt.
- Remember movement should be fluid. Think of the shoe as an extension of your leg. Make movement more generous when necessary to compensate.
- Stretch (more on this last one in a sec!)
Potential problems To Be Awareness Of:
- If you do all this, it is a heavy load on your calves, quads and glutes so be sure to always stretch these out! Over time, it can tighten your hamstrings and hip flexors so be willing to give these some stretching TLC.
- Pressure on your knees if you don’t use correct technique. So be sure to engage your centre to alleviate this.
- Calves and achilles tendons may need extra attention so stretch these out. You can also use a foam roller and tennis balls to get rid of knots of tension, especially in the hip flexors and the bottoms of your feet.
- If your ankles are weak, use a more supportive shoe and take care to strengthen them in order to avoid injury.
- The pelvis will want to naturally tilt so this does require some focused correction.
The Bottom Line…
So that’s it! We made it to the finish line! Congrats. The main thing to remember for dance and heels work if nothing else, is that being able to place yourself in them with a nice bevel, is not the same as being able to turn, jump and move quickly in them. Some things you can only learn by feel. So if you want to look hot to trot in heels, just like pointe work, you need to do it regularly. I promise even a little work will go a long way. So let’s invest. Are you ready?