During the dream scene of Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly finds himself eye to foot with Cyd Charrise’s long, luxurious leg—and her emerald high heel. As he stands up to retrieve his hat from the tip of her stem, the spike points straight at him until she raises her leg to the heavens. It’s pure bliss. Throughout her seduction of Kelly, she remains perched on a demi-pointe both required by and accentuated by her footwear.
From Charrise’s green glory to Dorothy’s red slippers, it seems that shoes, particularly high heels, have the transformative ability to awaken a woman’s sense of power. But why does a shoe so greatly affect the wearer’s self-perception? When the foot is slipped into a high heel, the calves tighten, the bottom lifts and the chest thrusts forward, exaggerating a woman’s curves. From there, it seems the seeds of confidence shoot up from the foot to the mind. Carolina Giannini, a dancer with Tango Fire, says, “Heels make a woman feel like a cat—filled with stealth,” she says. “It’s sensual like nothing else.”
A Heel With History
Before heels were used in dance, they were used in life. In the Middle Ages, cork wedges and stilts helped wearers stay above mud. Catherine de’Medici brought high heels into vogue in the 1500s when she wore two-inch heels in order to compete with the tall mistress of her betrothed, the Duke of Orleans (later the King of France). In the 1700s, King Louis XIV wore heels adorned with mini-murals including complete battle scenes. He also decreed that only nobility could wear red heels, establishing the shoes as a status symbol.
Considered a mark of wasteful nobility, heels fell into disfavor during the French Revolution, but they later reemerged in varying styles. Traveling through countries and decades, heeled footwear morphed into recognizable form during the flapper era of the 1920s. Since then, the jabbing lift has outlived many other fashion phenomena.
Dance, Lifted Up
As high heels moved into the mainstream, parallel versions kept pace in the dance world. From classic court dances performed in low heels, to folk dances including the jig, tarantella and the Scottish fling, dances called for structured shoes. Phil LaDuca, former Broadway dancer and creative director of LaDuca Shoes, explains: “When the traditional dances were established, there was so much stomping, jumping, scuffing and pounding. So they all required inflexible, hard-soled character shoes that capitalize on the sound of a heel dropping to the floor.”
Since then, heels in dance have diversified and evolved to include options like tango shoes, character shoes, and styles for gliding waltzes. While some dancers seem to have been born with heels attached to their feet (like Charisse, or comma-footed Elizabeth Parkinson), many others find it takes diligent practice to master dancing in them.
For Ballet Hispanico dancer Angelica Burgos, learning to love heels took time. “Before Ballet Hispanico I had only done pointe work,” she says. “Dancing in heels is night and day from pointe shoes, including the posture, balance, and weight shifts. It’s taken me five years, but now heels are like my running shoes. I love the way they make your leg so long, show off your foot, and pop your arch.”
Broadway dancer Donna Marie Asbury wore her first pair in a summer stock tour of Bye Bye Birdie at age 16. Now, she loves the heels she wears as a merry murderess in Chicago on Broadway. A dancer in the Fosse musical since 1999, Asbury says she prefers character shoes with a suede sole, two straps that cross over the instep and an extra platform under the ball of the foot for extra support—plus they add height to her 5'3" frame. “In the ‘All I Care About’ number, we are sexy and wanton, strutting around with the heels,” she explains. “Then, in ‘Cell Block Tango’ we are angry, and stomping in heels is really empowering for that moment.”
Making Heels Work
Depending on the style of dance, heels are used in different ways. “In tango, you need to put the whole foot down and push off from the heel,” explains Giannini. “The heel is what allows you to glide forward from the momentum of pushing through it.” She adds that three points of the foot are all in use: two in the front, and one in the heel, creating a triangle of support and rebound for the earthy movements of traditional Argentine tango.
For Burgos, some pieces require character shoes with a wider heel and toe box, and others call for ballroom shoes with a very thin heel and tapered front. The diversity in footwear makes special demands on Burgos. “I am always on demi-pointe, pulled up with my stomach in and shoulders back,” she says. “Sometimes, in transitions you have to go through your whole foot. But even when you do, you aren’t on your actual heel; you’re on the shoe.”
Burgos and Asbury both say they wouldn’t trade dancing in their heels for flat slippers. But they do admit that wearing heels creates physical challenges, from dealing with the shift of the body’s center to added stress on the balls of the feet and strain on the lower leg.
Burgos says her lower back is a source of pain due to the altered position of the spine when wearing higher shoes. For Asbury, the discomfort on the balls of her feet is the worst aspect, especially on days with both matinee and evening performances. “You have to give your feet a break sometime,” she says. “Because I wear heels for a living, it takes a special occasion for me to put on a pair outside the theater.”
On top of discomfort, wearing heels also requires serious readjustment in larger movements. For Asbury, sliding into a full split during “All I Care About,” is the hardest move to maneuver in heels. To avoid wrenching her ankle, she slides on the outside part of her foot, essentially sickling it.
Burgos finds large jumps difficult. “Unless you have a partner to support you on your landing, when you jump in heels you have to compromise your height and power,” she says. “You have to make the jump smaller and increase the plié for a softer landing.”
To acclimate to the specific way a shoe affects movement, Burgos suggests dancers wear the same style and heel-height in rehearsal as those worn in performance. She also says that adding a metal brace between the heel and arch portion of the sole creates extra stability.
Both Burgos and Asbury recommend exercise programs that strengthen the core, like Pilates and Gyrotonics, because you have to readjust your center when dancing in high heels. After workouts or shows, they stretch their calves and Achilles tendons daily. They also soak in hot baths with mineral salts. Ginnini does extra strength training for the ankles.
Fortunately for heel addicts, more help is available from shoe companies that take an interest in comfort and functionality. LaDuca founded his company based on his own experience in dance and observations of frustrated female dancers.
“Watching my gypsy friends slam their shoes in door jams really resonated with me, especially as they got injured,” says LaDuca. “When you jump or do a big movement, you have to be able to roll through the foot as you land and brush it as you take off. So my shoes are flexible enough to point and brush, but are still supportive and stable in the heel cup and toe box.”
Many other companies are following suit, with character shoes more closely resembling a pliable ballet slipper with added heel than a wooden clog. But while this change is very welcome to dancers, heels would have a place in dancers’ hearts regardless.
“There are times that we have to rehearse a piece in flats, and it just feels so wrong,” says Burgos. “The minute you put on heels, you become a different woman—sexy, powerful. It’s like Cinderella.”
Lauren Kay is assistant editor at Dance Spirit magazine, and is also a dancer and writer in NYC.
While dancers love how heels look and have learned to accommodate to their demands, Dr. Lori Weisenfeld, a New York-based sports podiatrist, sees the effects on her patients. “Heels do elongate the leg and make the calves contract. But there’s nothing less sexy than women having difficulty walking in them.”
Weisenfeld explains that the discomfort has several sources. The first is pressure on the ball of the foot below the big toe joint on the two small bones called sesamoids. The second is on the paddy part of the ball of the foot, just below where the toes attach, which is stressed from the added weight. The last can come from corns on the top of the toes, when they are pushed forward in a narrow toe box.
“High heels do not allow us to walk in a regular heel-to-toe fashion,” she says. “Also some high, narrow heels are unstable and leave the wearer vulnerable to twisting the ankles, tightening the calves, and shortening the Achilles tendons.”
Weisenfeld says that character shoes are the best choice for dancers due to their wide heel, deep and wide toebox, and common T- or ankle-strap that adds support and stability. In some styles, low platforms in the front of the shoe offset some of the heel height. Wider heels that are placed more firmly below the ankle also help.
Weisenfeld reminds dancers that whatever the issue, foot health is vital. “Foot pain is never normal. Any repetitive pain, swelling, or discoloration should be evaluated by a podiatrist.” For a podiatrist in your area, visit apma.org. —L.K.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.