This page gives a general overview of shoes and shoe care. For information about dance shoes for a competition you may also wish to see the DanceSport competition shoes page.
While it's possible to dance in normal shoes, and many beginners do for a while, it is easier if you have proper dancing shoes. These are often more flexible and supportive of the foot, look better in competitions, have special soles that allow spins without losing all grip, and come in half-sizes and a range of width fittings to match your foot size more closely than regular shoes.
If you're reading this, you might also be interested in our page about what to wear for dancing.
Modern (ballroom) shoes
For men, Modern shoes come in a variety of designs that almost all share the same basic shape, like laced smart shoes but cut away quite sharply at the ankle and with a low heel. The sole is normally suede, which allows for comfortable grip without preventing spinning. The top is usually either regular leather (matte) or patent (shiny). For social dancing, regular leather tends to work better as the scuffs you pick up don't show as much and the material can be softer. For competition dancing, on the other hand, patent shoes look much better. More expensive ranges may have features such as a cushioned heel or perforated arch for extra comfort and control. You can have any colour you like as long as it's black, and you really have to have black socks to match.
For ladies, Modern shoes look rather like court shoes. Again, they have the suede sole to allow both grip and spins. Some designs have a strap across the top of the foot for extra security. A lady of average height and foot size would probably have 2-2.5 inch heels, though ladies who are taller than average relative to their partner can go down as low as 1-1.5 inches. Higher heels are not common for ladies' Modern shoes, since they would make it difficult to roll through your foot properly while dancing. Many colours are available; it's generally safe to get a neutral colour to match tanned skin/tights, and for ladies entering competitions it's also common to have shoes that match your dress colour.
Men's Latin shoes have a cuban heel, pushing the weight forward to match Latin dance actions. This can take some getting used to, but helps your dancing in the long run; if you think they look strange, just wear trousers long enough to disguise them. If you're going to be dancing Modern and Latin in the same shoes, be aware that dancing Modern in Latin shoes is quite difficult since the shoes are practically designed to make heel leads awkward. Some manufacturers offer a Latin design with a slightly different heel shape that allows this. The sole of men's Latin shoes is normally suede. The top is typically either regular leather or nubuck (which has a suede-like appearance).
Ladies' Latin shoes often look similar to strappy evening shoes, usually with an open toe, securely attached at the heel. Again, they have suede soles, and you can get a variety of colours. Depending on your height, anything from 2.5 - 3.5 inch heels are common. The opposite advice applies to Modern: tend towards the highest heel you can get away with in Latin, since you want to keep your weight pushed forward rather than rolling through the foot and you don't need to worry so much about matching your partner's height. Don't overdo it, though: shorter ladies with small feet should drop the heel size rather than push it up so much that they're almost dancing en pointe, which would cause fatigue very quickly when dancing Latin actions. Again, a caveat is in order if you'll be wearing the same shoes for both Modern and Latin dancing: the open toe shoe on most ladies' Latin shoes can be quite a liability in Modern.
Practice shoes and dance trainers
It's also possible to get practice shoes for both men and ladies, which don't look as good as normal dance shoes but tend to be more comfortable for prolonged wear. A relatively recent innovation from some manufacturers is the dance trainer, which has a sporty look and decent foot support, but typically also has a split sole, a bit of a heel, and the sole made from materials that allow easy dancing. These are often worn by Latin dancers, and have also been worn by Rock 'n' Rollers in preference to regular trainers.
Shoe care and accessories
Dance shoes aren't cheap, unfortunately, but with a bit of care they will last a lot longer than if you neglect them.
An important accessory if you have suede soles is a shoe brush, which is a wire brush used to loosen any accumulated dirt from the sole and keep the right level of roughness. Shoes that are not brushed from time to time tend to compact the dirt until the sole is completely smooth in places, making the floor seem very slippery as you dance.
An essential accessory for ladies wearing Modern or Latin shoes is the heel protector. This is a small plastic device that fits over the heel tip of your shoe, and serves two useful purposes: it means the heel lasts a lot longer because you can just throw away a heel protector when it wears out and replace it with another, and the floor lasts a lot longer if your heel tip is wearing down itself and the nail that attaches it to the rest of the shoe starts to push through enough to scratch the floor otherwise.
For patent leather shoes, normal shoe polish usually works well enough to keep them shiny, but better is a silicon polish, which also has a greasing effect (stopping your shoes from sticking together if your feet brush) and helps to keep the leather supple (reducing cracking, which can otherwise be very awkward if it causes the shoe to press into your foot uncomfortably). You can also get cleaning materials for nubuck.
A variety of 'alternative therapies' for older shoes have been suggested over the years. Some Ladies' satin shoes can be renewed somewhat by putting them through a washing machine on its lowest setting, wrapped in a shoe bag. Shoes with suede soles that have been heavily soiled may be improved by brushing the sole with a rough sponge or similar, using a few drops of washing-up liquid. It is unlikely that shoe manufacturers condone these techniques, and you use them at your own risk!