If you're a dancer, you've probably heard of, or worn character shoes before. Typically character shoes are worn in musicals, or for parts that do not require specific dance shoes, like tap, pointe, or jazz shoes.
Character shoes are designed to help the dancer dance on a stage and help them with footwork. So what makes a character shoe a character shoe? "The flexibility of it, so you can feel the floor under you and articulate the dance movement," said Alicia Rossi, manager of LaDuca Shoes, a NYC midtown dance store that services the theater, dance, film, and television communities. "It's the flexibility of the shoe. It's the way they're engineered. You can get movement throughout the foot and are not held back."
Character shoes are made for both men and women, but are usually seen on female ensemble members in a musical. Shoes come in either black or tan, so as to not distract from the dancer, and typically have a heel height of one or two inches. Many character shoes also have a strap that crosses the ankle but also have a T-strap in the front as well, so the shoes don't fly off during high-kicking sequences.
But why is it a character shoe and not a Broadway shoe, or a theater shoe? Finding an exact answer to that is difficult. During the first decades of the 20th century there was a New York chain called the London Character Shoe Company, but they catered to the general public, not the performing community.
A possibility is that the name was derived from the character dance, which is an essential part of the history of ballet. It is usually a stylized type of traditional folk or regional dance, adapted for the stage. A famous example are the series of dances that open Act 3 of Swan Lake.
Phil DaLuca, who danced for Agnes DeMille and Twyla Tharp before he became a shoe designer, says there is another explanation. He says that they were called character shoes to fit the character the performer was portraying. "For instance, a black shoe for a keystone cop; a sneaker for a gang member in West Side Story. They weren't functional shoes. They fit the character. The look was appropriate for that character."
The term character shoe came into fashion during the 40's and 50's when American musical came into its maturity, "when dancers stopped being just chorus girls. Now, when men were dancing they were a character, and not just a 'chorus ballet boy'."
When asked why most character shoes today look the same, DaLuca said, "Like everything else, things will become... watered down. Now you have a stock character shoe."
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