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.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."