Dancing in heels is nothing new. Throughout the history of many dance styles heels seem to come in and out of fashion. Historical pictures have documented dancers in heels going back as far as the middle ages for both male and female dancers for social dances, but it's only been recently where I've seen classes actually being promoted simply as "Heels".
Dancers, usually female, in musical theatre styles of jazz, tap and ballroom have always had the requirement of performing in heels. Some teachers would incorporate a heels section to their classes to allow for learning the differences between dancing in heels and flats. Some styles, like ballroom, are often just started straight away in heels. Until recently, I've never noticed a separate billing for a class based on the footwear, so intrigued and fairly adept at wearing heels I decided to check some classes out.
Heels, Stiletto Vogue and Hip Hop Heels are some of the class titles I found at studios around the region. All were jazz, house or hip hop based classes. (As a note, hip hop is definitely not a strong dance style for me or anywhere within my comfort zone so I went into that class prepared to tank and just survive the experience.) All of the classes were mixed gender, as a female it's challenging to dance in heels, gentlemen due to their body structure and centre of gravity have even more of a challenge and may I say the guys in the classes I've taken are definitely up for that challenge.
For most of the classes I took, heels didn't mean nice character shoes - it meant 3 inch + stilettos - no marley on most of these floors. Make sure you find a shoe that can be held securely to your foot, as doing a battement and watching your shoe fly off your foot and impale another dancer as gravity brings it back down will not win you any friends. (No this did not happen to me). Be wary of any shoes using thinner strips of elastic over the top of the shoe to secure it as the shoe gets incredibly floppy if the elastic decides to rip as your arch changes height (yes, this did happen to me). Many classes will specify in the dress code "No Sweat pants". They mean it and yoga pants do count as sweats for many teachers. Leggings, tights, shorts and skirts are all fine, but you don't really get into the whole leggy feeling of dancing in heels while wearing baggy sweat pants.
Most classes started with a traditional warm up, sans shoes, for that dance style. This is extremely important since almost 100 muscles in your body have to work differently as soon as you put on a pair of heels. Heel heights will also change the muscular work. As soon as you put on a pair of heels you are basically shortening the whole back side of your body, starting with the soles of your feet. Your body is designed to have all of its parts stacked one atop the other for maximal efficiency. Imagine taking a stack of boxes and putting a 3 inch book under one end, the boxes will either move out of their perfect alignment with each other to stay stacked or they will slide off of the box below it without outside support. The bones in your body want to do the same thing, the outside support that keeps them together is your muscular and connective tissue systems. This means you are going to work harder to stand up straight, before even taking your first step.
In very general terms, the muscles in the back of your body are being shortened which affects your balance, range of motion and the effort balance between the front and back of your body. It also means you might have to stretch things that aren't normally tight when you are finished with class. If your posture is less than ideal when standing barefoot, you will often find that these deviations become even more exaggerated in heels, this increases your chance for injury and building compensatory patterns….fix your posture before throwing heels in the mix.
Feet are architectural wonders of design - a series of arches and springs which allow them to become rigid levers to propel us forward or absorptive structures to act as shock absorbers with each step, that is until we put a shoe on them - never mind a high heel. The more rigid the arch of the foot is held, the less shock absorbing it can be and the more impact will be felt in the ankle, knee, hip and spine. Having injuries or issues in any of these areas before adding heels to the mix can make class less pleasurable. For those of us used to dancing en pointe, it's not the same. While balance may be tricky all the way up on our toes, the rest of the foot structure is often in a better alignment than in a heel - also we don't stay fully en pointe the entire time so we still are using our spring mechanisms. In heels we lose this.
Dr. Kenneth Laitman, head of anatomy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai refers to a foot in high heels as T Rex feet. The reasons being the lack of ability to push off from the foot which means that locomotor movement would need to be hip driven. For a dancer this means your hip flexors will be getting quite the workout. The lack of push will also make any running, jumping or leaping more challenging to the muscles in the leg since you have taken the feet out of the equation. This challenge is compounded by the fact that gravity always wins and that we will have to land at some point.
Anyone who's taken a dance class has heard a teacher remind them to let the heels touch the floor when in demi plie' - including those before and after a jump…not so much in a heels class. Keeping the heel slightly raised off of the floor (just high enough to slip a sheet of paper out from underneath) is a safety trick to avoid snapping a heel. It also just increased the work your are going to be doing with the back of your leg. Even walking forward is changed since normal gait involves a heel strike and then toe push off, welcome to the ball of the foot strike and toe push off. If you are wearing an ankle boot height shoe, you've just restricted your mobility even more. Other challenges will be getting on and off of the floor for any floor work and getting momentum for multiple pirouettes (the foot that you are pushing off the floor is a much more effective lever when it is flat vs. in a heel).
When all is said and done, dancing in heels is really it's own technique and it's my hope that some of these heels classes will start to actually teach the tricks of surviving the experience safely as opposed to just giving choreography. Knowing the challenges and potential pitfalls so that you can make the best choices for your body is important for taking class in heels. If you are using heels (be they character shoes or stilettos) in choreography, please make sure your dancers are strong enough to be working in heels and prepared for the physical challenges that working in heels presents.
I've found that learning the material at a slower pace really helps me to figure out what changes I need to make muscularly and with body weight transitions to keep the movement smooth and safe and then once I've "translated" the movements from flats to heels, I can pick the pace back up. When teaching, the Barre Notes app for the iPhone and iPad is quite handy to have (and free). You can find out more about it by visiting the home page of this site and clicking on the banner for it.