Ballet shoe guide for mature dancers

Ballet shoes come in different styles and materials, which can be confusing for the beginner dance student. Ballet shoe guides are often aimed at the young dance student, however, and don’t discuss some of the problems encountered by mature dancers when choosing ballet shoes.

We’ve asked Johanna Hadley, Silver Swans® licensee at the Janet Lomas School of Dancing, for her advice about ballet shoes for older dancers. Johanna teaches over 100 dancers aged 55+ each week and encounters a wide range of adult dancers. From those who are taking up ballet for the first time to those who may be returning to classes after a long break, here is her advice:

Finding the correct pair of dance shoes is important for dancers of any age. I find that recommending the correct pair of ballet shoes for my Silver Swans® can be more difficult than for other age groups.

In general, ballet shoes don’t give the foot and ankle a tremendous amount of support, but I find that supportive footwear is important for my older dancers. When teaching more mature adults, you are also far more likely to come across people with foot and ankle problems than you might if you were teaching children or young adults.

Ballet shoe material

Ballet shoes come in three different materials: satin, leather and canvas. The material can considerably change the feel of the shoe.

I never recommend satin ballet shoes for older learners because if you catch your foot the wrong way, the shoes can soon feel slippy. Additionally, satin ballet shoes are more often used by pre-teen children. Instead, leather or canvas are preferable.

Leather shoes are supportive, non-slippy and long lasting. They are also available in a wide range of colours. Most of the older dancers that I teach prefer pink or black leather shoes. Black is particularly popular because it matches with black tights or leggings (none of my Silver Swans® wear pink ballet tights in classes).

However, leather shoes don’t hug the feet like canvas shoes do. Canvas ballet shoes are made from a lovely soft material that isn’t as sturdy as leather but will hug the arch of your foot, creating a beautiful line to your feet. Some canvas ballet shoes, such as Grishko, also have light padding on the heel for shock absorption. Canvas ballet shoes generally don’t last as long as leather, but this is the preferred material of most teen and adult dancers.

I have also been asked on a few occasions if vegan ballet shoes exist. They do! There are vegan ballet shoes such as the Basilica Helen of Troy – not only are they vegan, they are beautiful, too.

Ballet shoe sole

Having not danced since they were a child, many returning dancers will find a big difference in the soles of ballet shoes. Their memory is of hard-soled leather shoes. Ballet shoes are not made like this any more and they instead have a soft, flexible sole that allows the foot to fully articulate. Ballet shoes are now available in two styles: full sole and split sole.

As with young students, most beginner mature dancers start with full-sole shoes. For dancers of all ages, they provide more stability, which, in turn, helps with balance. I have many dancers who love their full-sole ballet shoes because they are comfortable and supportive. Some felt that, as they progressed on to more advanced work in the class, they wanted more from their shoes and this is when they purchased split-sole ballet shoes.

Split-sole ballet shoes are comfortable shoes that hug into the foot. They allow the foot to fully articulate and feel the floor.

Generally, I advise my beginner mature dancers to buy full-sole ballet shoes first while they get used to the ballet class. As the weeks progress, they get a feel for their preferences in a ballet shoe.

Shoes with a heel

Milly Townsend wearing split sole Jazz shoes

Preferring to dance with a small heel is a problem that, after many years of teaching students of all ages, I have only encountered with my mature dancers. There can be a variety of reasons for not wishing to be in flat ballet shoes: some people just don’t like being in flat shoes and others have found it to alleviate ankle problems.

For a low heel in a ballet class, I recommend jazz shoes with a suede sole. These feel and move just like a ballet shoe but have a small heel. Jazz shoes are also available in a split sole or whole sole, just like ballet shoes. They are comfy to wear and many dance teachers use these to teach in.

For a higher heel, Bloch Paris shoe or a leather Greek sandal are perfect for dancing in. Bloch Paris is constructed similarly to a ballet shoe and has a soft, flexible lower with a solid heel. This shoe is also sometimes used by dance teachers. The Greek sandal shoes are overall much more solid in their construction, giving a less flexible sole but a highly supportive heeled shoe.

I have had numerous dancers who have found a heel on their dance shoes to be beneficial. Some have found it particularly useful after ankle surgery where, for example, metal implants in the feet may be restricting the range of motion in the ankle joint.

Wide feet

It can be difficult for dancers to find the correct shoe for wide feet (in particular, when caused by bunions, which I’ll discuss next). However, Bloch and Sansha offer wide-fitting ballet shoes. These wide shoes are available in leather and canvas, split shoe and whole sole, and in black, pink and white.

Bunions

One of the most difficult problems that I frequently come across when teaching my mature dancers is bunions. Bunions affect the fit of the ballet shoe and can also be extremely painful. The first thing to check with bunions is whether the ballet shoe is correctly fitted. If the shoe is too tight then this can pull the big toe across and in to the other toes. Dancing and moving with your toe at an inward angle can make it painful.

To my mature dancers, I have recommended wearing Toe Spreaders and Bunion Supports inside their ballet shoes, and they have found relief in wearing these. Toe spreaders and bunion supports are designed primarily for dancers in pointe shoes. Even in flat ballet shoes, however, they fill in the gaps between the toes, preventing them from crushing into each other. A bunion support will also keep the big toe in alignment while filling in the gap between the big and second toe. Please note that I always assess this on a case-by-case basis, and so if you are having problems with bunions, I suggest speaking with your dance teacher and/or medical professional.

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