When talking about Irish dancing shoes, much is often made of the stress and hassle of breaking in hard shoes – the blisters, the pinching, the stiff soles. It’s easy to forget that soft shoes can be just as tricky! Pamela McDowell, Managing Director for Ryan & O’Donnell answers the most frequently asked questions about soft shoes, with advice on breaking them in, getting the right fit, and making sure they last the distance.
What do I look for?
While soft shoes might not look like much (some leather and shoe lace) there can be a big difference brand to brand. According to McDowell, “There is little support in soft shoes due to the very nature of their design and purpose, however you should still look for what the manufacturer is offering to compensate for this, such as good arch support, shock absorber, and a slightly stiffer base, which will give you more support to get up on your toes and offer some protection.”
When trying them on, McDowell says, “The soft shoes should feel tight and pinch a little, however you should be able to walk in them without any pain and be able to dance in them with a little discomfort to start with – it does not take long to mould soft shoes to your foot, and dancing in them will stretch the shoes out slightly.” The fit is key, particularly when it comes to the heel. “The shoes should also fit snug around your heels and should not be slipping off – the last thing you want is for them to go flying off during a competition! If you find the shoes are loose around your heels, try on a bigger size – it could be that the shoe is not fitting over your heel properly as they are too small in size.”
Should they hurt?
No. They should be tight and your foot should feel supported, but you shouldn’t be in pain. “If the shoes do not feel supportive on your foot, and is very painful or you are not able to walk in them, then either the style or size is incorrect.” McDowell points out that tying the laces correctly during the fitting process is crucial, saying, “When trying soft shoes on, try and tighten up the laces yourself so you will feel how the shoe really fits and looks on the foot – if you need help ask the sales assistant. There are also a few different lacing/tying techniques which every dancer should explore. If you are not tying the shoe properly it will affect your performance and we would suggest you ask the sales assistant the recommended method for lacing any particular style. Do not be afraid to experiment with new lacing techniques when practicing, just because you were shown one way doesn’t mean another might not suit or feel better on your foot.”
Just on lacing, there has long been discussion about whether laces go around the foot or the ankle. “Ryan and O’Donnell do not recommend that you tie the lace around your arch as it is not good for your foot, and is the reason why you often get cramps in your arch as you are restricting your tendons,” says McDowell. She goes on to add, “We have a recommended lace technique which holds the heel on very securely and does not require tying the lace around your arch. If you really do prefer tying the lace round your arch we recommend you only do this for competing, and whilst practicing avoid this lacing technique.”
How do I break them in?
According to McDowell, “Soft shoes should not need much breaking in, especially if you buy the correct size. The best way to break in any shoe is to simply wear them to practice and change shoes half way through – you will soon start to prefer your new shoes over old worn shoes as you will notice the support is better and that your dancing will reflect this.” She goes on to add, “It is also advisable to try out the shoes first of all in the house on carpeted floors as soon as you get them – this will give you an opportunity to confirm it is the correct fit before dancing in them, and give you confirmation that you are wearing the right size/style. If the shoes do not fit right then it should be possible to exchange them if they have only be worn for short period of time on carpeted floor.” Another great piece of advice from McDowell, “It may also help en-route to class that you warm the leather up in your hands and bend the shoes slightly for 10/15mins before wearing them for the first time to class. This will make the leather a little more supple when you put them on at class.”
How do I keep them in good condition?
Soft shoes often seem to stretch and wear out, but the problem could actually be that you’re buying them too small. Truth. McDowell explains, “Try not to buy soft shoes too small – whilst you want a tight fit you shouldn’t drop down several sizes for fear of stretching them out. Soft shoes are essentially a bag of leather and your foot will naturally stretch them out, however if you squeeze your foot into 2 full sizes smaller than your actual size not only are you doing your foot harm but your foot will instantly start to stretch the leather as soon as you wear them. We therefore recommend buying your soft shoes tight so that they pinch when you first put them on, as dancing will stretch the shoes to eventually become a better fit moulded to your foot. Buying soft shoes too small will stretch them out very quickly and they will become floppy very quickly.”
Sizing can be quite confusing when trying to match up a regular street shoe size to a dancing shoe size. “Ryan and O’Donnell soft shoes are small made and already take the above into account, therefore we recommend you buy your correct shoe size or drop down half size for ultra tight fit.”
Not only do you want to buy the right size so they don’t stretch, you need to look after your shoes. “To maintain the shape of soft shoes, regularly putting a clean sock into the toe area will absorb any dampness and help maintain the shape. It is important to air your soft shoes after you have been wearing them otherwise not only will the dampness from your sweaty feet start to break down the leather, but your soft shoes will start to smell bad. We also recommend applying bees wax around the stitching of the soft shoe sole unit as often as possible to help prolong the stitching and reduce wear and tear”, McDowell explains.
How often should soft shoes be replaced?
There are many factors that contribute to how frequently soft shoes should be replaced, such as practice and competing schedule, the floor you dance on, and how ‘hard’ you dance. McDowell says, “We recommend champion dancers should be changing their soft shoes every 3 months if they are practicing as well as competing in them. However some champion dancers will change more frequently than this and we find many top champion dancers tend to like buying new soft shoes at major competitions and wear them to compete in at the same event as they feel more supportive in new soft shoes. For those not competing at Championship level we would advise replacing soft shoes every 4 to 6 months.”
How often do you replace your soft shoes? What brand do you wear? Do you do a particular type of lacing? Comment below, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.