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Question: I'm a theatre performance student, and like many of us, own the multiple pairs of character shoes, in both nude and black, t-strap and not, and multiple heel heights. My question is, why do we call them character shoes? When did that start? Is there a special requirement to make them "character shoes" instead of just heels? Do boys have them too? The guys here just call theirs "dance shoes," but is there another name for them? — Margaret Rojahn, Selinsgrove, PA
If you're a theatre hoofer, working on Broadway, Off-Broadway, regionally, or even in community theatre, you know what "character shoes" are. But you've probably never thought much about them, or their name. They're just something you have to own if you want to dance on a stage.
Character shoes are designed to aid the dancer in his or her fancy footwork. 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, the manager of LaDuca Shoes, the midtown shoe store that serves the theatre, 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 are held back." Character shoes are usually worn by female ensemble members in a musical, but, yes, there are character shoes for men as well. (LaDuca carries five styles for men.) The shoes usually come in either black or tan, so that the color of the shoe does not distract from the dancer, and typically have a heel of one or two inches, and a strap — sometimes one that just crosses the ankle but often a T-strap in front as well — so they don't go flying off into space during a high-kicking routine.
As to the name, that's tougher to answer. There was a New York chain called the London Character Shoe Company in the first decades of the 20th century. But they seem to have catered to the general public, not the performing community.
A possible explanation is that the name was derived from the notion of the Character Dance. A Character Dance is a type of classical dance that plays an important role in the history of ballet. It is a stylized version of a traditional folk and regional dance, adapted for the stage. One example is the series of national dances that take place at the start of Act Three of Swan Lake. It is possible that the term Character Shoes came from Character Dance.
But Phil LaDuca — who danced on Broadway for Agnes DeMiler and Twyla Tharp before he became a shoe designer — has another theory.
LaDuca said that they were called character shoes because they were made to suit the character the performer was playing. "For instance, a black shoe for a keystone cop; a sneaker for a gang member in West Side Story. The weren't functional shoes. They fit the character. The look was appropriate for that character."
LaDuca guessed that the term came into use sometime in the late '40s or early '50s, when the American musical came into its maturity, "when dancers stopped being just chorus girls. Now, when men were dancing they were a character, and not a 'chorus ballet boy.'"
Asked why so many character shoes today look much the same, he said, "like everything else, things will become...watered down." So now you have "a stock character shoe."