Retrofitting Shoes for Contra

March 01, 2016

In the last Hey! I conducted a most unscientific survey of some of our most veteran contradancers. Bottom line: almost no one who dances contra long-term (and with a minimum of pain) does so in off-the-shelf shoes. Instead, a variety of do-it-yourself strategies are employed to transform existing footwear into something suited to the unique stresses contra places on a dancer’s body.

A common problem is that shoes which are supportive or provide cushion also tend to have exceedingly grippy soles. Most of us want to spin on the ball of the foot. One solution is to glue a slick material onto the bottoms of shoes that have the support/cushioning you want. Here’s how.

The first task is to choose a shoe which has a glue-able sole. Unfortunately, most of today’s athletic shoes have soles with far too many nooks and crannies. One website recommends skateboard shoes for this purpose. One of our long-time dancers chose a pair of women’s cushioned flats. Several others (myself included) chose a pair of modern bowling shoes. As cushioned and supportive as any athletic shoe, modern bowlers come with something called “microfiber” covering the ball of the foot:

I’ve tried contradancing with these shoes straight out of the box, but in our humid North Carolina climate, the microfiber very quickly loaded with sticky gunk, making twirling and spinning a knee-jerking response, so to speak. However, the nearly flat surface is easy to glue over. Really, any pair of shoes you find comfortable for long, hard wear and with a reasonably smooth sole will do.

At this point, you could take your chosen shoes to a local cobbler and have leather or suede glued on. It will probably adhere better than what you can do yourself. Or you could buy stick-on soles which some contradancers have tried and liked. One version of those soles appears to be made from synthetic products—a good choice for those who oppose using animals for human purposes. I’ve tried using plastic disks cut from milk jugs, but they pretty much refused to stay glued and wore through very quickly.

In leather lingo, you’ll want to search for “vegetable tan tooling leather” if you want smooth hard leather. If you want what we civilians call “suede”, then search for “chrome tanned leather”. Leather is graded by the ounce: the more ounces, the thicker the leather. Pictured below is roughly 4 or 5 ounce vegetable tan tooling leather (approximately 2 mm), which I found to be really too thick and hard to work with. One or two ounce is a much better choice. It can be bought as small scrap pieces. I got the pictured assortment on eBay, but craft stores carry some too.

Cut your material to size with tin snips or any other heavy duty scissors. I cut mine just enough to cover the ball of the foot on up to the toe, not the entire shoe sole. The glue you use for this is really important…and often toxic. Work outdoors if you can. While “Barge” cement and “Shoe Goo” are the brands most often recommended by the several webpages on this topic, I’ve used a variety of rubber cement “welder” glues which stick pretty well. One swing dancer even used hot glue —a less toxic approach. I use furniture clamps to hold the leather in place whilst the glue dries overnight. Large numbers of rubber bands or string wound tightly around the glued piece can also work.

Ever wonder how performers dance in what appear to be ordinary sneakers? Watch this 2009 video by the shoe repair shop tasked with transforming sneakers for New Kids on the Block. Contradancers are not the only ones who need to glide and twirl in comfortable shoes! You’d think by now some dance shoe company would wise up to this need, but so far none has appeared to do so.

Think you’ve found the perfect shoe off-the-shelf? Contact me —I’ll publish a list in the next Hey!

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