Ballet Shoes: How Do I Choose?

My ballet shoes have carried my roughed and flawed feet through the dance of life.

My feet are narrow. My right foot is a half to a whole size bigger than my left. My second toes are significantly my longest toes. I have huge callouses on the balls of my feet and big toes. My toenails bruise often. My left foot doesn't point as well as my right. I blister easily.

Chances are, I did not just describe your, or your child's, feet. That is okay and I'm glad. You are walking a separate path and your footprints are as unique as you are.

Just know that my advice about ballet shoes is based on my experience and what I have found works best for me. Yet, I want to give you at least a little headstart in understanding the different components of ballet shoes.

If what I offer does not make sense in your life's (or your feet's) context, contact me with your questions, and I'll see if I can help you make the best and most informed decision.

There really is no one right answer or best choice possible. However, there are a few key points to pay attention to when choosing ballet shoes to make the best choice for YOU.

Leather vs. Canvas

Leather shoes are made of thicker material so they are more durable. Leather shoes, for me, last about 4 months of dancing 25 hours a week and can be stretched to 5 or 6 months if I don't mind holes in the toes. Canvas (cloth) ballet shoes barely last me 3 months, but again can last 4 months if I don't mind the holes. Also, if you or your child loves to dance at home, carpet tends to shred the canvas shoes easily.

Leather shoes may stretch, depending on how soft the leather is, and how much you work through the shoe, so the fit may not always be snug.

Many dancers use canvas ballet shoes because they fit flexibly to the shape of the foot and can accommodate wider feet. They tend to be more "comfortable" because they are thinner, more flexible, and more lightweight. However, I have personally never liked how they felt.

I prefer a ballet shoe called a hybrid which is a leather ballet shoe in the toes and heel, but the middle part of the shoe (arch) is of a different material such as canvas, neoprene, or something else thinner and more flexible than leather.

Hybrid. Courtesy of dancesupplies.com

I have worn these shoes since my elementary years of dance so I am particularly biased, but I have never had any problems with them.

The hybrid is primarily leather so it lasts longer, especially in the places that meet the floor most (toes). Yet, the canvas arch shapes to my foot so I know that no effort or movement is unseen or unfelt.

The non-leather arch also counters the stretching of leather in a place that is not needed because the arch needs to fit snugly to prevent unnecessary gapping. A well-fit arch allows for the teacher to see if you are "rolling in" or "caving in" on your arch and allows the student to feel the difference in the foot and not just the shoe. However, the canvas insert will not support your arch.

If the arch of your foot is weak, I suggest a hybrid shoe with a neoprene insert instead. The neoprene insert will accent the arch, make it easier to point, AND support the arch. I personally do not like the texture and fit of the neoprene arch. It tends to bundle strangely and not move naturally with my foot.

Also, if the point of your foot is not the greatest, then an accented arch creates an illusion of a longer point. This isn't a shortcut to not pointing, but it helps create those beautiful lines all the way through your foot.

Full-sole vs. Split-sole

The sole is the thicker piece of leather sewn into the bottom of the ballet shoe. it provides stability for balance, a smooth surface to "pirouette," and grip to work through the feet for such steps as "tendu" or "sauté."

Soles. Courtesy of dance.net

Full-sole can be beneficial for younger students as it adds additional stability. It also creates more resistance to build the muscles needed to "work through" the foot to point.

However, the split-sole is the sole used by most in upper levels. I see no reason or downfall not to start out with the same type. My elementary years included a split-sole with no repercussions.

Also, as in the canvas arch, the split-sole emphasizes the pointed shape of the foot and is more flexible in the general movement of the foot which is important when learning proper placement, weight distribution, and articulation in developing a full point.

Single vs. Double Elastics

The purpose of elastics is to keep the ballet shoe on the dancer's foot. As long as it does its job, it really does not matter what type. That being said, after I switched to double (criss-cross) elastics, I never wanted to go back.

Elastic Straps. Courtesy of allstaractivities.com

Double elastics are advantageous because of security and conformity. The double elastic has double the anchor points to secure the shoe in place and ensure the shoe moves with the foot. It also conforms to your shape which creates a smooth line all the way down the leg and into the toe.

Single elastics secure the middle of the foot, but leave room for gapping at the arch when you rise up on "releve," or gapping in and slipping off the heel. For younger dancers, though, a single elastic functions perfectly well as it keeps the shoe on the foot.

CAUTION: Younger children love to stretch out their elastics. Please encourage them not to do this as the shoe becomes extremely loose and makes the execution of steps (especially moving across the floor) more difficult.

You may even find that your foot does not require more security or that you have never had issues with gapping or heels slipping off. In that case the hassle of sewing another elastic is not necessary.

Drawstrings vs. Elastic

The drawstring encircles the top of the ballet shoes. It wraps around the heel along the side of the foot and can be pulled tight and tied at the top-center of your foot. In some shoes, the traditional drawstring is replaced with an elastic band, like the elastic straps that hold the shoe in place.

Drawstring. Courtesy of dancinginthestreet.com
Elastic. Courtesy of dancinginthestreet.com

Understanding the convenience of the elastic bands is simple. Easy to slip on. No "bunny ears" or "antennas" to tuck in. No weird lumps to rub inside the shoe. Overall, a very convenient upgrade from the drawstring. You could try a pair of these and they could mold to your foot like Cinderella's slipper.

However, the reason I would be hesitant to jump on the convenience train is because it does not allow for a custom fit. The drawstring tightens to your foot's requirements. It is there because everyone's feet vary in width even if the length or "size" is the same. I have two differently-sized feet and the drawstring allows for me to adjust accordingly.

Also, in the case of growing feet, I think the drawstring allows for a little more time and adjustment than the elastic. Simply untie and loosen the drawstring to give a little more space and time before buying another pair.

Speaking of growing, your child will most likely need another pair by the end of the year. That is okay and is also why these recommendations need not be followed perfectly. The main point to consider is; What is the best quality and most affordable shoe I can get for me, or my child?

The first pair you try may be your one and only for life (I was lucky enough), or you change brands and styles every year until your feet have stopped growing and you can finally settle. I wouldn't think or worry too much about the "perfect shoe." If you have questions, ask your teacher or dancewear shop for advice and suggestions. Your studio may volunteer preferences or require a specific style, type, or brand in which they will communicate that to you at the beginning of the year.

Are There Any Ballet Shoes I Should NOT Buy?

As you have seen, there are many variables to choosing your ballet shoes and how they may fit. For your first pair, I recommend going to a dancewear store and being fitted by an expert.

Ballet Slippers.Courtesy of walmart.com

However, I completely advise against ballet "slippers" as you would see in a Walmart or Target or such. They function more as house slippers and are absolutely wonderful for your children to dance around in at home, but they provide no support, no secure fit, no stability, nor grip and are not proper dancewear.

Also, most studios will ask for pink ballet slippers for girls and black ballet slippers for boys. I would avoid odd colors such as vibrant pinks, white, etc. (unless specifically asked) simply because a uniform look is most desired for recitals and you may be asked to buy a new pair for that occasion.

My Personal Favorite

I know this is so much to go through, learn, and understand. If you have any questions at all, contact your teacher and they will be able to further clarify.

Yet, if I had to choose just one shoe to recommend, it would be the one that has been my faithful dancing companion for over 14 years. Thus, in correlation to this advice, my shoe of choice and recommendation is the "Prolite II Hybrid" Leather Split-Sole Ballet Slippers from Discount Dance Supply.

You can find them here.

"Prolite II Hybrid" Courtesy of discountdance.com

This shoe is a hybrid so it has the longevity of leather as well as the flexibility of a canvas insert that helps me pay attention to the articulation and shape of my feet. The split-sole emphasizes my nicely arched foot and provides the proper amount of stability and resistance to the floor. The drawstrings accommodate my differently sized feet. Pre-sewn double elastics complete this wonderfully secure and fitted shoe. Plus, this shoe is available in child's sizes.




The Long and Short of It

No matter the size and shape of your foot, ballet shoes are ballet shoes. No shoe is going to take the place of the passion and discipline of your training. Ballet shoes are simply tools to help you move and express yourself, but your primary tool is the amazing body and muscles that work together to create the visual lines and shapes in the space around you.

If you are beginning your ballet journey, the ballet shoe is just a means to a beautiful end. But as you grow and mature in your art, the ballet shoe will become a beloved paintbrush on the canvas of the stage. You can still create the picture no matter the brush you use, but you'll tend to cater towards a specific one.

Use the recommendations above to make the best choice you can, but let the creative process and journey be that...a journey...and ENJOY all the amazing discoveries in the process!