Sky-High Skills

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

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