With Magic in Their Feet

Words: Margarida Brito Paes
Photo: Frederico Martins

Nothing is ever the same after our feet learn to dance. Any pause, whether at the bus stop, in a lift or even during a meeting, and our feet will take on a life of their own, learning steps and moves that belong on the stage or in the rehearsal studio. Perhaps this is why dancers have a different relationship with their shoes. The magic of dance begins with the feet.

How can I write these words with such certainty? I was a flamenco dancer for many years and, even without having practiced for a long time, my hands still shake with emotion when I tie my shoelaces. I can say with all certainty that this is magic in its purest state. A certainty that was reaffirmed as I interviewed dancers for this article. The form of dance or the type of shoe the dance requires doesn’t matter: the bond formed between the dancer and the shoe is beyond natural.

“In the case of flamenco dancers, there is a very close relationship with the shoes, because the shoes are the instrument of our rhythm and our music. Moreover, for me they are a religious symbol. They have something of the sacred,” says Sofia Abraços, a dancer and teacher of flamenco.

This secret Sofia speaks of can be seen in the words of other dancers. The memories the shoes carry in their soles are so strong that they become a kind of talisman. This is true of half the shoes kizomba and salsa dancer Nágyla Galvão has in her wardrobe. “I can’t get rid of the shoes. I have been dancing for ten years and I am very attached to them. Each one has its own story, or took me to a competition or to a stage that was very important to me. Some are there just to be looked at,” she adds.

This is a feeling shared by the flamenco choreographer and teacher Teresa Costa Godinho. “I have had flamenco shoes since I was a size 34, but I have such a strong relationship with them that I just can’t throw them away. I look at them with a great deal of nostalgia because they always remind me of different moments of my flamenco journey. Even my first pair of flamenco shoes — they were semi-professional and not very good, but they are part of my progress, of my apprenticeship, so looking at them reminds me of that. They are part of my dance career, and so they are special.”

Even those who wear slippers — which you can barely see and which often hurt the feet — reveal their special fondness for dance footwear. “When I look at ballet slippers, despite having a love/hate relationship with them, without a doubt I feel more love than hate. This is because they are a symbol of the effort and passion I put into what I do, of the love of dance and creativity,” says Miguel Esteves, a dancer with the National Ballet Company.

However, it is not just a thread of magic that bonds the dancer with their shoes, there is also the technical aspect that makes this kind of footwear very special. Each type of dance requires different balance, so the details of these shoes are somewhat unique.

“The soles of normal shoes are hard, not pliable. If the sole is very hard in a dance shoe, then it is very easy to twist an ankle or break a foot. So dance shoes tend to have more pliable soles that allow the foot to stretch, move on demi-pointe or even fall to the floor if that is part of the routine, without getting hurt,” explains the commercial dancer Catarina Clode Casqueiro.

Movement teacher Tiago Martins has at least four pairs of the same shoes not only for classes, but also for everyday wear. The characteristics of the shoes he wears are so specific that Tiago always wears them, even when he is not practicing movements. “The relationship a mover has with their feet and the utensil they cover them with is very rudimentary: in fact, it is the minimum possible. Whenever we are unable to go barefoot, we wear specific shoes that make it seem we are barefoot, even when we are not. It’s the most minimalist shoe possible, with a sole that is just a few millimetres thick, very minimal, with no seams, made of cloth and a bit of rubber to provide the minimum of protection,” he explains.

Whether because of their technical specifications — which are more important than appearance in dictating the choice of shoe — or because of their history, there are no shoes quite like dance shoes. It’s a kind of magic…

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