Choose a shoe: a good jazz shoe is a soleful experience.
Choose the sole of your jazz shoe based on the type of floor you dance on. Many jazz shoes come with a rubber sole, which provides good traction when dancing on uncovered wood or cement floors but may stick to marley floors. So if that's your surface, consider buying suede soles instead, like Sansha's JS1 Tivoli shoe. If the shoe you want comes only with a rubber sole, you often can special-order suede.
Many dancers prefer a split-sole design because it articulates the arch and shows off the foot better. The latest jazz or dance sneakers also have a rubber split sole, which makes pointing and flexing a lot easier. The extra cushioning in rubber soles increases comfort on hard surfaces. A spin spot on the sole of the shoe, or a suede patch, like the one on the Capezio Strike 390, makes for faster, more fluid turns on marley flooring.
Don't discount full-soled shoes entirely, however. "Just because the shoe has a full sole," Marlena Juniman, vice president of Prima-Soft, points out, "doesn't make it inflexible." The PrimaSoft full-sole design, she says, "is made on the same last as the split sole and the leather used is premium soft so the shoe will bend with the foot and yet offer more support under the arch."
Some dancers complain that snug leather shoes bunch at the arch when they point their feet. So almost every manufacturer has added a neoprene insert, which conforms to the arch completely, with the foot in any position, producing a much more flattering line. Because neoprene doesn't breathe well, some companies now use mesh arches or air-punched insoles to improve aeration and moisture control, such as the newest Capezio Dansneaker or the Bloch Enduro-Techs.
If you have the misfortune of dancing on a gymnasium floor or on marley atop concrete, you'll want your shoe to absorb as much shock as possible to keep the extra stress off your joints. Angelo Luzio's 467L has a one-half-inch foam heel, and the Bloch Boost DRT II sneaker boasts an air-cushioned heel--both of which are said to help combat shin splints and knee problems. Leo's uses EVA (a lightweight, shockabsorbing material) in the heel of many of its styles, including the new X-Jazz shoe, and a thinner layer on the sole patch for the same purpose.
Toe construction has also improved over the years. Sansha's general manager, Philippe Saint-Paul, says jazz shoes, unlike ballet shoes, wear out fastest at the toe. Sansha's shoe designers added a little patch to cover the toe pleats to prolong the life of their shoes.
Capezio's newest jazz sneakers have a square, firm sole, which allows you to do toe stands. If you have wide feet, look for styles that come in M and W.
The top of the shoe--from toe to ankle--is called the "upper." The old shoes were made of thick leather and "were almost indestructible," remembers Rob Rubinger, dancer and company coordinator for Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. "And forget about pointing your feet."
Shoe companies responded to dancer complaints by using lighter, softer leather, which forms to the foot better. The use of mesh (Leo's), perforated nubuck (Capezio), or even microfibers (Angelo Luzio) keeps the foot cooler and drier.
Dancers long complained that the laces dug into their arch the more they pointed their foot. The solution? The slip-on jazz shoe, which articulates the foot and allows dancers to point, flex, and roll over the arch. The original slip-ons came up too high for some dancers, according to Rubinger, and didn't have a good line. Today's low-rise slip-on jazz slipper, with elastic inserts at the sides, is a perfect choice for concert dancing since its lightweight, tight-fitting construction makes it as comfortable as it is attractive. Several companies, including Bloch and Award Dance, offer split-sole jazz shoes in tan as well as black, making them a good choice for lyrical dancers.
Unlike pointe shoes, jazz shoes should give you few problems. "If your shoe is giving you sore ankles or bunions, try another shoe," advises Rubinger. "You should be able to find one that does the job without hurting." If you suffer from Achilles tendinitis, choose a shoe designed to reduce stress in that area. Bloch's Enduro-Tech shoe removes stress from the Achilles tendon when the foot is pointed; Leo's Dance N' Jam low-top sneaker adds padding on the collar and tongue to make pointing easier on the tendons.
Dancers today benefit from frequent communication with shoe manufacturers. Members of Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal wear Angelo Luzio jazz shoes that were designed only after Luigi Luzio received input from the dancers. Bloch, Capezio, Leo's, and Sansha designers also work closely with dancers, artistic directors, and choreographers to continually improve the look and feel of their products. With so many styles and varieties to choose from, you're sure to find a style that works for you.
Linda Sparrowe is the author of A Woman's Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness. She is a columnist for Martha Stewart Living and a contributing editor to Yoga Journal. Special thanks to Megan Keough, a corps dancer with Tulsa Ballet.