Tips for training your students to dance in heels

Beyoncé and her dancers practically live in high heels.

In the commercial world, anything goes when it comes to dancing in heels. From simple strutting and posing to leaps, turns, floor work and tilts, dancers are performing in heels all the time—and making it look easy. Shirlene Quigley’s first job was dancing in Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” music video and following promo tour, and she’ll be the first to tell you the preparation was anything but painless. “Beyoncé never takes her heels off when she’s rehearsing,” she says. “And since she never takes them off, we never took ours off, even when our feet were bleeding. The only way to perform well in heels is to practice in heels.”

Shirlene Quigley (right) has toured with Beyoncé and leads Stiletto Heels classes for dancers in New York City.

If your students dream of touring with pop stars or performing in music videos, they likely already know that dancing in heels is a must. But waiting until that first audition to slip into a pair of stilettos is a recipe for disaster—and injury. Practicing on a carpet or wood floor at home isn’t much safer, either. Hosting a heels class is a great way to help your students master the technique. Here’s how you can prepare dancers to confidently pursue their commercial aspirations.

Putting the Right Foot(wear) Forward

While there are plenty of dance shoe styles with heels, the pros agree that if you want to make it as a commercial dancer, you have to be able to dance in high-fashion, nondance shoes. Dana Foglia, who teaches a seven-day high-heel intensive in L.A. and New York City, opts for a classic pump, no more than four inches high, without straps or a platform. “This style is feminine and sexy and gives the best line of your body,” she says. Quigley, who teaches Stiletto Heels classes at Broadway Dance Center and Peridance in New York City, prefers a tight, thigh-high boot. “In my classes, we do a lot of floor work—plus the boots keep my legs warm and can hide a kneepad if needed.” Quigley also appreciates the added ankle support you get from a boot.

Tell students to shop around to find the shoes they’ll be most comfortable dancing in. You’ll be able to tell a dancer is in a heel that’s too high if she’s unable to straighten her knees while walking or if she’s extra wobbly. “The entire foot should lay flat on the inside of the shoe without a struggle,” says Kamilah Barrett, commercial dancer and founder of Heel Hop, a course that prepares dancers to perform in heels. She suggests younger dancers start in a small heel, one-inch or lower, and work up to a three- to five-inch heel as their strength and confidence develop. From there, dancers can opt for a character shoe for added support before graduating to stilettos.

Add a Little Prep to Your Step

Moving comfortably in heels requires serious balance and a whole lot of core strength. “Dancers have to be able to hold their relevé and keep their core tight,” says Quigley. “You have to be able to stand in a heel before you can dance in a heel.”

When Quigley was learning to dance in heels, her teacher had her stand in her heels with one foot on the ground and the other balancing on top of a piano for up to 15 minutes. “It got me used to standing on a heel,” she says. “After that I could try to walk, and then turn.” She suggests lots of plank exercises to start readying dancers’ cores for heel work.

Work the Warm-Up

Warm-up should be done before putting heels on. Foglia’s classes begin with a full-body warm-up, plus drills where the dancers do all their movements in relevé, shoes off. “It’s extremely difficult, but it helps the dancers understand how important it is to pull up in their core and keep their weight on the balls of their feet,” she says. Quigley begins her classes with barefoot lunges, sit-ups and a series of balancing exercises, followed by a full-body stretch, focusing on the neck and calves. Sometimes she’ll also include across-the-floor work in heels, such as battements, sassy jazz walks or other technical work. Beware that the pace of class doesn’t go too fast, which can encourage dancers to rush through the movements—making them more likely to turn an ankle or fall. The pace should be significantly slower than in a typical jazz or hip-hop class.

Barrett pays extra attention to students’ body alignment during class. “You don’t want their ribs pushing forward or their butts arching back,” she says.

Choreography: Keep It Simple

Once you start the combination, dancers are probably going to love full-out dancing in heels for the first time. But make it clear to them that fooling around or trying to do impressive-looking moves could end up sidelining them. That “Single Ladies” side tilt looks great in the music video, but the last thing dancers want is to sit out their next competition because they sprained an ankle.

When selling yourself in heels, confidence is key, but it can take a while to build. “It’s hard to take that first step in heels,” Quigley says. “It’s important to let each student take his or her own step in their growth. Don’t push them. You may have a dancer who wants to do her entire first heels class in bare feet on relevé, and then the next class she’ll work her way up to a character shoe.” Ensure that your dancers feel comfortable and strong—both physically and emotionally—as they prepare to dance in heels for the first time. DT

Alison Feller is the former editor in chief of Dance Spirit.

Men can strut their stuff, too.

Yanis Marshall took the world (and “Britain’s Got Talent”) by storm last year with his routines to Beyoncé’s hit songs. With nearly 20 million YouTube views—per video—Marshall makes a clear statement that dancing in heels isn’t just for the ladies.

From top: photo by Alphonso Chan/Getty Images; courtesy of Shirlene Quigley

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're not prepared, studio picture day can be a real headache. But, if done right, it can provide you with gorgeous photos that will make your students and parents happy, while simultaneously providing you with marketing content you will be able to use for years to come.

Here are five tips that will help you pull off the day without a hitch.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I have a very flexible spine and torso. My teachers tell me to use this flexibility during cambrés and port de bras, but when I do, I feel pain—mostly in my lower back. What should I change so I don't end up with back problems?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox