When people find out that I have rheumatoid arthritis (also known as autoimmune arthritis),I’m often asked how I’m able to swing dance and what shoes I find are most comfortable. As part of the blog carnival “Non-medical ways to ease rheumatoid arthritis pain,” I’d like to share some of my favorite shoes that reduce or prevent foot pain. While I’m at it, I’ll also share my favorite professional and casual shoes, as well as some simple gadgets that can help those with arthritis put on and take off shoes easier. I hope you find it useful, and hey, now that the holidays are here, you just might find a gift idea for a loved one with arthritis!
Shopping for Arthritis-friendly dance shoes
Recommendation #1: Flats are where it’s at. While many popular social dances such as salsa and tango favor high heels for the ladies, mercifully swing dancers (specifically lindy hoppers) favor flat, athletic, Keds-like shoes. I only wear heels for special performances or occasions when I can easily change out the heels for something different (such as my wedding, at which I had 4 pairs of shoes…but that’s a story for another day!).
Heels are difficult to tolerate for many people with arthritis because their design results in excess force on the metatarsal joints, which tend to be inflamed with rheumatoid arthritis. These joints are on what we colloquially call the “ball” of the foot. This article from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has a great overview of the foot issues prevalent for those with rheumatoid arthritis, for those interested in learning more. This article actually measures the force changes when people wear high versus lower heels (and the positive effects of orthotics). If you’d like to take a geeky walk down memory lane, check out this article from 1884 that addresses the negative effects of various styles of shoes including heels!
Recommendation #2: Find your “sole-mate,” a sole that finds the sweet spot between sticky and slippery. Dancing will involve a lot of pivoting and turning, which means you want a shoe that will allow you to pivot and turn without getting “stuck” (which causes excess strain on your joints and ligaments, particularly your knees and ankles), but you don’t want a shoe that is so slippery that you will be at risk of losing your balance or slipping and falling. Many swing dancers prefer leather or suede-bottomed shoes, or rubber that is relatively flat and smooth rather than sticky. Also, consider that every dance floor will have a certain amount of inherent “stickiness” or slipperyness, so most dancers end up having a variety of shoes they bring with them so they can adapt to the floor and dance most comfortably.
Recommendation #3: Whatever shoe you choose, make sure to have adequate cushioning. To me, this usually means having an orthotic insole such as the Walking Company’s Casual Metatarsal Orthotic, the many offerings of Superfeet, or simply an extra cushion on the ball of my foot. Put simply, the thinner your shoe, the more force the tender bones and joints of your foot will have to absorb. When you add padding to the shoe (either in the construction of the shoe or in additional inserts), you are requiring that the shoe absorb that force rather than your foot (citation).
So, after all that, here are my favorite dance shoes!
1. Aris Allen Classic Canvas Dance Sneaker (see photo to left).
These are the shoes I end up wearing 80% of the time; I have multiple pairs in white and black. They have suede leather soles, can be dressed up or down, and provide just enough support to prevent pain but not so much support that they limit my flexibility.
2. Toms Silver Glitters (see photo above)
These tend to be on the slippery side, but I like that they don’t require laces and are thus easy to put on and take off. They also have some arch support, and come in lots of great colors and styles, including glitter!
3. Aris Allen 1940s Peep Toe Mesh Oxford (pictured at right).
These are my exception to the “flats only” rule. The thick, angled heel, the insole and the sueded bottoms make these the easiest heels to dance in. Bonus: they definitely are worthy of a dress and capture the authentic 1940s vibe!
One last note on footwear: the majority of swing dancers I know swear by Keds, however Keds simply don’t fit my feet comfortably. I would recommend checking Keds out since they are very popular across a wide variety of dancers. Also, check out this interesting discussion thread where various swing dancers weigh in on their favorite shoes and provide tips for purchasing shoes with just the right fit to make dancing pain-free.
Arthritis friendly non-dance shoes for all occasions
The main difference between shopping for dance shoes versus professional, casual or non-dance dress up shoes is that I don’t have to consider the surface of the sole in as great of detail since I don’t plan on pivoting or turning with them. Thus, I have a bigger selection to choose from. Having said that, I maintain recommendations 1 and 3 from above (stick with flats, and ensure you have adequate cushioning).
Arthritis Friendly Professional Shoes
I have a super cute pair of black leather Kumfs flats with bows, which are not currently on their website but are very similar to the ones pictured at right. You can see their great arch support on the inside of the foot, and their leather construction means no painful rubbing (which can cause bunions).
The Dansko heels are the only ones in the world that I can wear for more than a couple hours without feeling pain! They can be dressed up or down super easily, and are unbelievably comfortable (unbelievable in that, “I’m wearing heels and I’m actually comfortable!”). The Dansko designers are geniuses.
3. Gentle Souls by Kenneth Cole Iso Bop
I bought a used pair of the Iso Bop from Crossroads Trading Company, my favorite place to buy “gently used” clothes and shoes. They tend to have great brands for great prices since everything is secondhand. Like many of my recommendations, these are a bit pricey, but if you can find them at Crossroads or Ebay, you probably won’t regret it! They offer great arch support, are easy to put on and take off, and are very lightweight.
Arthritis-friendly shoes for casual occasions
Dansko recently came out with a cheaper, more casual line of shoes with the same awesome support on the sole but with more “give” in the material because they are constructed with canvas. These are my go-to shoes to wear on casual occasions.
2. Dansko Crepe boots
You can see me wearing these on the first picture of this post. Again, they have the super supportive base of all other Danskos, yet these are made from a different material that actually does feel lighter. They have a zipper on the side that’s easy to zip up or down, and are aesthetically pleasing enough to wear with a dress or jeans. Love these!
3. Miz Mooz Bloom boots.
These are a splurge but I get tons of compliments on them and adore them. They are great for people with wider feet or a bunion (I have a bunion on my right foot only). They don’t offer a ton of of arch support, but the toebox is big enough to easily fit an orthotic or insert.
4. Dansko Sandi sandals
I have ones similar to the Sandi and wear them almost every day in the summer. They are super comfortable and are easier to purchase online than other Danskos because you don’t have as much material to potentially rub on the sides if you have wide feet. I even officiated a wedding in the patent leather version of them!
Bonus tips regarding Danskos:
As you can see above, I am a huge fan of the Dansko brand because I feel that their rigid, thick soles really absorb the force of my foot hitting the ground in a way that decreases inflammation in my metatarsal joints. However, some people find that due to the rigidity of the soles, they feel more prone to tripping or rolling their ankles when wearing Danskos (particularly their classic clogs). I would recommend trying them on at the store and walking around a bit to see if they suit you. You will generally want to try on Danskos before purchasing them anyway, because they are all handmade and thus each shoe fits slightly differently.
Bonus recommendation: Simple “dressing aides”
As an occupational therapist, I’m prone to getting geekily excited about the plethora of dressing gadgets (or “adaptive equipment”) on the market. During my schooling and clinical internships I’ve come across some very simple and commonly used dressing aides that can help people who experience difficulty while putting on shoes or socks.
Sock Aid: I recommend the flexible style of sock aid. They don’t look like much, but in my internships I’ve seen then be extremely useful to those who have decreased strength or range of motion.
Shoe horn: One of my favorites, this allows you to push your heel into your shoe using the force of your foot rather than the small joints of your hands.
Given the length of the above post, you might think that I am intrinsically a “shoe person.” However, up until my diagnosis, I was never “into” shoes (other than soccer shoes, where I was an Adidas girl all the way). I became more interested in clothes and shoes after starting swing dancing in the mid-2000s, and then truly became a “shoe person” in the late 2000s when I started having increasing foot pain (to the point where I wore a boot on my right foot for a little over a month).
When I was first diagnosed with RA, I never expected it might lead me to become a shoe person, but I can honestly say that I actually do enjoy shoe shopping in that it’s an exercise in having my cake and eating it too; I’d like to wear something that’s aesthetically pleasing as well as pain reducing. The main downside is the price, because I’ve found you simply can’t compromise price for comfort. As warped as this may sound, I actually do consider shoes part of my medical expenses, because I feel they prevent additional pain and address my underlying inflammation.
I hope that these suggestions are useful to you and those you love, I’d love to hear any additional feedback you have and look forward to reading the RA Warrior’s post after the blog carnival is over!
*For those waiting for Part 2 of the “How Hard is it to Learn and Teach Dance” series – it is coming in January 2013!