Higher heels can be ideal for elongating your line and showing off your legs. (Courtesy Shai Yammanee)

The Heel Deal: How to Choose the Right Character Shoe

From Chicago to Kinky Boots, heels are a necessity for musical theater dancers. But lots of factors go into choosing the right character shoes, especially when it comes to heel height. Ultimately, it's all about figuring out how to feel confident, so you can rock every step—from high kicks to leaps.


Know Your Show

The most common character shoe heel height is 2 1/2 inches, according to Kenya Gibson, a sales representative at Capezio in NYC. It's an ideal height for many dancers because it strikes a balance between elongating your line and still allowing you to relevé. When wearing a 3-inch heel, your foot is already in a high relevé position, and unless you're a strong dancer, it can be hard to relevé further.

But you should also consider the show's choreography. “If I'm doing leaps and turns I'm going to be wearing 2 1/2-inch heels, but if the choreography is just walking and a kick line, I'll wear 3 inches," says Meredith Therrien, a dancer who's worked on Oceania Cruises. Think about time period, too. “The women in Fiddler on the Roof don't need to be in 3-inch LaDucas—it wouldn't make sense for the period," says Jessi Selig, a dresser for the show on Broadway. If you're auditioning for a similar show, choose boots that have a shorter, wider heel, which is a more authentic costuming choice.

Technique Is Key

If you're working on a show where a more standard character shoe is appropriate, you may feel like going for that high 3-inch heel—the extra height can help your legs look miles long. But another half-inch isn't always a good thing. “The trend now is for higher and higher heels, but the higher the heel, the higher the chance of rolling an ankle," says Broadway veteran Michelle Bruckner. If you're going to wear those 3-inch heels, make sure you have the technique and strength necessary to stay safe.

Bruckner also tells young dancers to make sure they have several years of good ballet and jazz training before they try sky-high heels. As for getting more comfortable, Therrien has simple advice: “Keep wearing them." To break in new character shoes, she tries them out in basic dance classes and rehearses blocking in them before busting out the triple turns.

Factor In Your Height

If you're a tall dancer, you may think you need to wear shorter heels to fit into the chorus, and if you're short you may think you need a height boost from your heels. But that's not necessarily the case. Sonya Higgins, a former showgirl in Jubilee! in Las Vegas, NV, is already tall at 5' 8", but she wears 3-inch heels anyway. “It's more about line," she says. “As a tall dancer, the kinds of shows I'm going out for are things like The Producers, or Spamalot, where it's all about the legs," making higher heels a better bet. And, if you're shorter, don't feel like you have to dance in the tallest shoe possible; go with the shoe that lets you showcase your strengths. Shorter dancers tend to be powerful turners or jumpers, and lower heels will allow you to show off those skills.

Find Your Style

Most dancers choose character heels with flexible arches. Therrien loves that soft-soled character shoes allow her to point her feet easily and land jumps properly. One reason to stick with hard-soled shoes? “Support," Higgins says—which you'll definitely need if you're dancing with a heavy costume. “If you're wearing a 20-pound headpiece, you want as much support as possible from your shoes."

The Bottom Line

One word: comfort. In the end, “you want a shoe that you're not going to have to think about while dancing," Selig says. “You want to be able to focus on the choreography." Comfort fosters confidence, and that's especially important during auditions. Properly fitted, comfortable shoes will get you further than an extra half-inch ever will.

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For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

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Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

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