This post was written by Lindy Shopper and Bobby White of Swungover.
Every few years someone will post looking for men’s dance shoe recommendations, people who are serious about dancing and want to hear from their peers and instructors about what shoes work for them. While women’s shoes are often specifically designated as dance shoes, as fewer and fewer women’s street shoes have leather soles, men have to navigate between classic men’s dress shoes and designated dance shoes to find their sole mate and this can get a bit tricky.
The request du jour is about finding suitable dance loafers. “But why specifically loafers?” You might be asking. “Why is THAT a Bal thing?” To answer this, we’re going to go back to 1936 when Bass first released their “Weejun” loafer (Based on Norwegian fisherman’s shoes, which were themselves based on Native American moccasins.) They added a strap across the top of the simple slip-on, and it was the first time the loafer as we know it came into being. They were soon nicknamed “penny loafers” because teenagers realized they could slip pennies in the holes of the loafer strap. Loafers became a huge fashion trend, becoming the casual shoe of many teenagers across America. (There are pictures of entire malt shops full of teenagers, all of them wearing loafers.)
Many readers probably realize that 1936 coincides with when swing music was beginning to sweep the nation. So, in California, in those years when Balboa and Bal-Swing began being danced by casual teenagers, the loafer was one of their dance shoes. Gene Kelly himself wore loafers and danced in them all the time as part of showing his casual, down-to-earth persona.
Though many of the teenagers probably danced in loafers for practicing, or casually dancing at the beach-side pavilions, you don’t see many in the old films. This was probably for two reasons. Loafers, as a casual slip-on, were too informal for dances where teenagers liked to/were required to dress up (and the dance scenes in the movies tend to take place in those ballrooms). Secondly, they were not the best for when Lindy Hop came to the California scene in the late 30’s, which was more high-powered dancing where the feet needed a lot of support, and shoes needed to stay on in extreme circumstances.
However, when the original dancers were dancing at the restaurant and bar Bobby McGee’s in their older years (their twice-a-month get together), loafers were a common shoe on the floor — and we have footage of Maxie Dorf, Willie Desatoff, Hal Takier, and some of the pure bal dancers in them, so it seemed most of them owned a pair. (Imagine the stereotypical old man in loafers — the Bal Old Timers were that generation.) Nick Williams said loafers were also an easy way to get the flexible kind of leather-soled shoes that Old Timers like Willie Desatoff desired in his students— but we’ll have more on that below.
So, loafers weren’t a huge thing, but just enough of a thing. And when the new generation of Bal Dancers in the late ’90s learned from the Old Timers, loafers became a sort of Balboa slang, which grew in the scene and has been passed down ever since. They’ve come to represent the casualness and smoothness of Balboa, as well as a tip of the hat to the old timers, even if the old timers were just old men who occasionally danced in their comfortable slip-ons. So that’s why loafers have a special place in the heart of the Bal scene.
As an aside, loafers went on to become the shoe of choice for another coastal group of dancers, Carolina Shag dancers, who also appreciate a casual and smooth shoe.
Now then, back to the present.
After a good bit of discussion ensued on Jeff Liu-Leyco‘s Facebook wall for the request to find a good pair of dancing loafers, Bobby White offered to collaborate with Lindy Shopper on a post – so here, you get the benefit of the discussion and firsthand knowledge from one of swing dancing’s sartorial heroes.
In the Facebook thread, swing dance instructorMickey Fortanasce recommended this classic pair of loafers, the Florsheim Dancer at $115. Given that Florsheim named these the “Dancer,” I think that bodes well.
Allen Edmonds is always a name that pops up in these discussions, and their now discontinued (but still available sometimes on eBay)Bergamano loafer came up.
But the holy grail of the loafers are the Nordstrom black tassel loafers and Bobby dropped the knowledge on everyone with the force of an eternal mic drop:
“Go to Ebay. Search for “Nordstrom Loafers Men Tassel [Black or Brown or Cream or just leave out a color] [your size].” Save this EBay search so that you will get notifications (possibly for the rest of your life — they can be hard to turn off). Eventually you will see loafers like this (below). There are many like them (some with netting/woven leather tops, likeDouglas Mathews rocks), some with pointy toes verses more square toes. Buy them. If you like tassels, keep them. If not, cut them off (like Nick Williams and I do). I present to you, the famous, the infamous, the eternal: the Nordstrom Loafer. The soles are one thin strip of leather, and minimal padding — which is why Willie liked shoes like these. You can really feel the floor in them (and, of course, your knees will too, if you pulse a lot). But that can easily be fixed with insoles, like Nick does (might need a half-size bigger in that case). They are tanks, and last a very long time. They are $200 shoes that will cost you $20-50 on eBay. They are seven-minute brownies in four minutes. Here endeth the lesson.”
THE TRUTH OF THE NORDSTROM LOAFER
In all honesty (Bobby speaking, here), the Nordstrom Loafers are fantastic, but they are not the only shoes out there like them. They just happen to fit the bill for the kind of loafer many of us Bal dancers like: Thin leather sole / classic loafer look / well-made so they will last a long time.
The Allen Edmond Bergamano is the same idea as the Nordstrom, and both Santiago and Johnston & Murphy have made leather-soled loafers that fit that bill that you might be able to grab on ebay. (The Johnson & Murphy ones are actually the ones Douglas Mathews rocks). If you get loafers like these and they don’t work well, you can almost always find a Bal dancer they will fit, so it’s not a big risk.
The other important take-away is that, if spending $100 + on a pair of new shoes is outside of your budget, thanks to Ebay, you can get an incredible pair of shoes for $15-$50 with a little bit of patience and an internet connection.
ONE-PLY VS. TWO-PLY
Also, you don’t HAVE to get thin leather soles. You might have very good reasons for wanting otherwise. In fact, the biggest question every dancer looking for a pair of leather-soled shoes should probably answer for themselves (after fit, and probably alongside aesthestics) is one-ply leather or two-ply?
Here’s what we mean:
Single Ply or One-ply sole means the sole is made of one strip of leather. This is more formally called a “Single leather sole” — “One-ply” is Bobby slang. Technically the thickness of that leather sole van vary slightly, but rarely enough to make a big difference. The common Aris Allen men’s cap toe is an example of a single-ply dance shoe with lots of cushioning.
Two-ply, or formally “double leather sole” or “double sole,” means two pieces of leather stacked on top of each other for the sole. Two-Ply soles were made for walking around outside (like on cobblestones), daily work, and keeping your feet warm from the cold ground. Because of this and their bulkier look, they are considered less-casual, though by modern standards the general public doesn’t care about that anymore and you shouldn’t worry about it too much — it’s more important you have comfortable shoes for your dancing style. The men’s Saint Savoy is an example of a double sole, as well as the Stacy Adams Madison. (There’s even a triple leather sole, but there’s probably very little need for that in dancing.)
Shoes like the Nordstorm loafer are one-ply and have minimal padding— you will feel the floor, and all the sensations of shuffling and sliding very clearly. The shoes will give you almost a barefoot sensation, cause the leather will move with the muscles of your feet on the floor.
However, because the swing dances are often athletic in nature, as well as involve some kind of pulsing, many of us choose to wear insoles with single-ply shoes, especially with the ones with minimalistic padding. You don’t have to, though — just know that you will have to dance very gently in them regarding your knees and feet. In single-ply shoes, you will smooth out your dancing (which is what the Old Timers wanted modern Bal dancers to do, anyway).
Shoes like the Florsheim Dancer Mickey prefers, or the now-defunct Bostonian leather-soled classic penny loafer (eBay!) are two-ply. You would choose these if you had a heavier pulse or more athletic dancing style in general (to cushion your knees and other joints), or, if you just liked the feeling of a heavier shoe and the weight it gives to your rhythmic experience, like swing dance instructor David Rehm enjoys.