I still remember my first salsa lesson in Medellin, Colombia. I remember the music and struggling to copy the instructor’s footwork. I knew then, in that cramped, sweaty hostel, that I’d be dancing salsa for life.
It has been 3 years. After 1 year in Colombia, I’ve continued salsa-ing weekly in the US and Asia, where I split my time.
I have a strange, accompanying obsession. Salsa shoes for men. Yup, I get eye-rolls from friends every time, so I thought I’d bring the conversation here. Maybe there are some fellow salsa shoe nerds out there.
Here’s what I’ve been looking for: what’s the best-looking, best-performing, most comfortable and versatile salsa dance shoe out there?
Style: What shoe looks good?
Performance: What shoe helps me dance better?
Comfort: What shoe could I wear for hours – and NOT wreck my feet and back?
Versatility: What shoe could double as both a salsa and going out shoe? (I HATE having to bring an extra pair of dance shoes)
Just so you know where I am coming from: I am a former Division 1 collegiate tennis player with lingering back and ankle problems. I grew up playing tennis on hard-courts 3 hours a day, and this continued through my mid-20s.
I’m not really a “shoes guy,” so a lot of this is new territory for me. But as an athlete, I’ve always wanted the best equipment – why not for salsa?
My first stage of research was to see what the best dancers were wearing – this included my dance instructors, local dancers I looked up to, and what I could find online.
Ataca and El Tiguere
I look up to these two bachateros the most for their style, technique, and sense of fun. It seems like they prefer bright, shiny loafers – Jose Bottas before and Taygras now. They look fly but I don’t have the confidence to wear shiny stuff on the dance floor. At least not yet.
Daniel and Desiree’s bachata videos were the first ones I found on Youtube. Back then I thought sensual bachata was bachata. To quote my friend: “That’s not dancing, they’re just having sex on the dance floor.” And Daniel – girls love him and guys try to be him – even in those tight pants! He mostly wears what look like jazz shoes. Sometimes he’ll wear running shoes or cross trainers.
Rodolfo Montano Castro
Love watching this guy dance, especially in the liquor store! His feet move like they’re hitting the drum. He always seems to wear well-worn sneakers with thin soles. For bachata, a little grip is okay because the guy doesn’t turn much – if at all – in Dominican style. If you watch Joan Soriano’s music videos, lots of guys are just wearing sneakers or even just sandals.
Who needs shoes?! This whirling dervish sometimes dances on his bare feet. He might tape them up. Or just wear Birkenstocks! In more formal situations it looks like he wears latin or jazz shoes. Just goes to show that “tone is in your fingers.” Just like how Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix could rock any guitar, a great dancer can be amazing with the simplest of shoes – or no shoes at all.
p.s. I saw Terry and Cecile at a salsa festival in Vietnam. One of my favorite moments was watching them dance outside, under the moonlight, with no audience. Just jamming and improvising, not a word spoken. They are incredible artists and while Terry gets most of the attention, I think Cecile is just as amazing.
One of my Colombian Salsa teachers – and still my salsa idol – was a world salsa champion and he looked up to Adolpho for style and choreography. So of course I had to see this guy dance! Youtube him. He is spectacularly precise. Even when social dancing, Adolpho seems to prefer the traditional latin dance shoe.
Salsa Teachers & The Best Guy Dancers in Each City
My teachers in Colombia recommended dance sneakers because they are more comfortable than latin dance shoes, but similarly force you onto the balls of your feet and are easy to spin in. I review them below. But most top dancers I’ve seen wear sneakers, loafers, or running shoes when social dancing. I’ve seen a few wear jazz shoes or latin dance shoes, but they are in the minority.
I’ve noticed most guys go for comfort over performance, unless they’re on stage performing – then they might wear dance shoes.
So to sum up, while each dancer has his own style, there do seem to be some commonalities on what makes a great salsa and bachata shoe:
- Light weight
- Clean, snug fit, not clunky
- Thin sole to feel the ground
- Flexible sole to simulate your natural foot
- Eye-catchingly stylish – whether overstated or understated – to express that dancer’s attitude
Salsa Sneakers – Dance Sneakers
These were recommended by my first dance studio in Medellin. Shout out to DanceFree!
Dance sneakers are lightweight and durable like a normal sneaker but have a split sole – one for the balls of your feet and one for your heel. The outsole is smooth which makes these shoes easy to spin in. The split sole also literally makes the shoe more flexible.
It took me a while to get used to the feeling of a split sole and the way it forces you to dance on the balls of your feet. I am assuming most newbies will feel the same way. These are great value practice shoes and you can also wear them out social dancing. The con is that even though they’re designed to be a durable, outdoor shoe, you can’t really wear them “out.” I’ve worn them to dinner, the bar, etc, multiple times before dancing and I find I have to pay attention where I’m walking – especially with steps.
Cost: $50-70 USD
Latin Dance Shoes (with Heels)
Now I know what girls have to deal with! ;). I bought a pair when I was in Taiwan. They are dressy, and the suede soles make them the easiest to spin in. Your shines will be on point. Many instructors have told me that the latin heel also improves your dance form. Wear these and you make a statement that you’re a serious dancer.
I remember being excited to try them at a social in Taipei. These are definitely shoes you need to bring with you. You don’t want to scuff up the suede bottoms or wear a high heel shoe to the sports bar.
The problem is they are quite uncomfortable, even after they are broken in. Your toes scrunch at the bottom and now I know why girls are SO EXCITED to take off their high heels after a long night out. You’ll feel the same way. I think these shoes are the best for performances or even short periods of social dancing. But they lack versatility – you’ll never wear these outside the dance floor.
Cost: $60-70 USD
I didn’t even know jazz shoes existed until I took a salsa class where the instructor was wearing jazz boots. Jazz shoes were his favorite because they were light, cheap, and felt like a shoe sock. I bought a pair of split sole jazz shoes and agree that they are the ultimate practice shoe. They give the closest feel to dancing without shoes. It’s much easier to do shines, spins and Dominican bachata wearing these shoes. The only problem is you can’t wear them outside the dance floor. The suede soles will get dirty or ripped up and I don’t even want to think about what would happen in the rain.
Cost: $20-30 USD
These are super comfortable, lightweight, durable and provide a lot of support. You could walk – and dance – all day in these. Plus you can rock well-known brands. I spent my first 6 months learning salsa with a pair of Nike Pegasus running shoes. However spinning is a problem. You can but you’re going to risk messing up your ankles and knees because of their grip. Running shoes tend to have bottoms that grip the surface, whether that’s asphalt or dirt roads. Also, the trade off to cushion and comfort is a thicker sole, which makes you feel further from the ground. Some running shoes like New Balances and Asics are a bit wider and clunkier too.
Cost: $60-140 USD
These are my favorite shoes to wear out social dancing. They are light and fit the foot like a classic dance shoe. Plus, they’re fashionable and matchable. In other words, they offer the most versatility, and you don’t need to bring another pair of shoes with you. Many have smooth synthetic soles ideal for spinning on multiple dance floor surfaces. I found my Converse shoes a bit tiring because of their thicker, heavier sole, but later found a Vietnamese brand with a thinner outsole that sold for $25/pair. They got scuffed up quickly but at that price point I was okay.
The downside to this type of shoe is that they don’t offer much support. Many also have sticky rubber bottoms, which makes sense given their skateboard, tennis or basketball origins. They are also casual shoes – you can’t wear these to formal events.
Many dancers have told me Toms are the best because they are lightweight and spin well.
Through internet research, I found a Brazilian brand – Taygras – originally made for soccer and capoeira, but since adapted for dancing. I ordered a pair. The souls are super flexible and you can feel the dance floor. Perhaps the best part is that they look like casual, everyday shoes. I expect to wear these for many years to practice.
Cost: $20-80 USD
Formal Dress Shoes
I have searched far and wide for formal black/brown dress shoes that I could dance in. This would solve a number of problems: 1) I wouldn’t have to bring an extra pair of shoes to work 2) if a dress shoe is comfortable to dance in for hours, I’d probably love to wear them to work. What guy would turn down stylish comfort?
The problem is that I find most dress shoes to be incredibly stiff, heavy, and literally, hard to dance in. The dressier the shoe, the stiffer the sole. Some of these have leather or even suede bottoms that make it easy to spin, but I found my feet tiring out quickly (unless I was drunk!). They also tend to have sharper, stiffer leather around the ankle, so I would inevitably cut up my ankles.
I’ve gone through 2-3 dress shoes, and this is the closest I’ve found – a leather mocassin with a flexible outsole.
I’ve also discovered dance brands GFranco and Jose Botta online. These brands outfit many top latin dancers and a dressy loafer seems to hit the sweet spot between formal style and function. I honestly don’t feel like my salsa or bachata is good enough to justify a purchase yet, but when I do, I will report back here. I’m leaning towards Jose Botta because you can wear his shoes for work and play too.
Formal Dress Shoes Jose Botta
Cost: $40-140 USD
For practice: jazz shoes.
Practice is usually at home or in a studio with a smooth floor. At $20-30, jazz shoes are the best value option in my opinion. The only issue is you have to bring them with you. If you’re too lazy to bring an extra pair of shoes, I’d go with running shoes or sneakers. However, I wouldn’t wear these if you’re practicing a lot of spins.
For social dancing: sneakers
In my opinion, sneakers are the most versatile shoe. They look good before, during, and after dancing – and you don’t have to bring an extra pair out with you. You might not be able to pull off those double spins, or show off your fancy footwork, but these have served me well. If you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of performance for comfort, running shoes with smooth outsoles make a nice backup.
For formal dance nights: dress shoes
As long as they fit well and are broken in, these are your best bet. Latin dancer shoes would work too but you have to buy and bring an extra pair to the event. You probably already have a preferred dress shoe with a leather bottom.
I want to mention a couple DIY solutions I’ve seen:
- Talcum Powder – sprinkle on the floor and rub on your soles so they are less sticky
- Dance Socks – these look goofy, but hey, I would trade looks for less injuries
- Suede Dance Soles – take your favorite shoes and put a suede sole on ‘em
- Sanded Down Soles – hire a cobbler to smooth out your soles on your most comfortable pair of shoes
Hot Dance Tip: Know Your Dance Floor Surfaces
After a month practicing in my jazz shoes, I was excited to wear them out social dancing. However I found that the suede bottoms didn’t work in 2 out of the 3 social venues I dance at weekly.
I realized that the dance floor is just as important as your shoes. Before you invest in a pair of salsa shoes, I’d observe what other top dancers are wearing at that venue.
In my opinion, plastic synthetic is the most versatile shoe outsole, followed by leather, suede and rubber. A smooth, synthetic outsole can be used on all dance floors: wood, ceramic, vinyl, linoleum and carpet.
My good friend and the Bachata Champion of Vietnam recommends Toms for their versatility and performance. I will buy a pair and report back here soon.
I am most excited about trying Taygras! They look great and have a flexible, smooth sole made for dancers. Plus, I like the ethics* of the company.
* Did you know 20 BILLION shoes are made every year and 90% of them go un-recycled? Let’s just say it: the leather industry is destructive to animals, leather workers and the environment. I want a shoe that LASTS long, causes minimal harm, and that can be recycled if possible. Taygras use 100% recyclable materials.
It seems like Jose Botta had the same problem a decade ago and designed some great shoes. Ataca and El Tiguere have endorsed his shoes for their functionality and performance. They’re on the expensive side, but I will try when I am good enough to rock them!
GFranco has some slick looking dance shoes, but like Jose Bottas they are on the expensive side. I will try and report back here. The only thing is the company explicitly says that its shoes aren’t meant for daily, outside wear.
This is what I want:
- Stylish, easy to match
- Lightweight – a heavy shoe makes mastering new footwork and shines even harder
- Hugs shape of your foot – they don’t feel clunky
- Thin sole to “feel” and get off the ground immediately – quick to react
- Encourages me to dance on the balls of my feet
- Cushion and flexibility that gives energy
- Smooth outsole to make spinning easy on many different surfaces
- Versatile outsole that you can wear outside in different weather
- Can double as a work and play shoe
- < $100 so they don’t break the bank
Has anyone found the holy grail? What are your favorite shoes for salsa and bachata. Tell me in the comments so I can continue this crazy journey…