Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
DIY-Soles for swing dance shoes
In any commited dancer's life comes the time when he needs "real shoes". Normally one starts with pretty standard sneakers or sports shoes, but soon realizes that your ultra-grip holds you back, where others skate over the floor. And this does not even mention your ankles complaints about being the stress point of every pirouette. If you are into standard dances, the easy solution is then to go to a specialized dance shop, get yourself one of the ten types of leather-soled shoes they have, a process that easily rids you of a hundred euros. The second solution is to try out all kinds of shoes for their danceability until a store attendant asks you to stop rubbing shoe's soles and turning in circles in their store. In short, going through 4 pairs of shoes a year, you need a solution to find dancing shoes you like, without spending hours or fortunes in a store.
Sparked by a comment from a co-dancer in Bristol (thanks, Sara), I started experimenting with putting leather soles under my own shoes. However, I did not stop at what I found on the internet on the matter, but took it into my own hands to find the perfect process. So, I stocked up on glue and leather in amounts I won't use up anytime soon and went to work. Here, I want to share the main experience of my trials, hoping to give every dancer the opportunity to comfortable dance in his preferred shoes without repeating that learning curve.
Putting soles under your shoes is pretty straightforward if you have some DIY-spirit. Roughly the whole process falls into three steps.
1. Get the shoes ready
First, get yourself shoes you would like to dance with. Personally, I like light-weighted flexible shoes, but I have seen people do Lindy in hiking boots (admittedly looking rather unhappy).If you have used them, make sure to really clean the sole, things are much easier if they are new.
If your selected shoes have a relatively flat sole (like Keds) or really fine profile (upper sneaker in the second picture) you are ready to go. However, if the shoes have significant profile (like the "cut"-brand sneaker in the picture), then you will have to flatten that out. Thats the first point where I tried out a couple of different techniques, either grinding the profile down until it is flat or filling it with different types of glues. By far the best solution for me is a skateboarding-glue called Shoe Goo. Simply put on a layer of that stuff, and then use a stiff piece of cardboard to create an even surface (yes, it works exactly like spreading butter on bread). Keep an old piece of cloth at hand, to wipe away glue that went over the sides. Wait until the stuff is dry.
2. Get the leather under them
Now, we need the material we want to put under the shoe which, for now, I will assume to be leather. While I have heard a lot of discussion about which leather is best, I found that pretty much any sturdy (cow-)leather works, so far I have tried Nappa, Nubuk, Chrome-Leather, and Leather of undefined type normally used to make saddles. The best (and cheapest) way to get this is to ask an upholsterer, cobbler, or anypne else working leather for a couple of leftover pieces (there are surprisingly many of these, just check the internet). Or if nothing works, you can by leather online, from scraps to whole skins.
Normally the leather has one smooth, and one velvety side. We want to glue the smooth side to our shoe, so put your shoe on this side of the leather and trace the shape with a pen. Then cut it out with some sharp scissors, leaving about 5mm extra in every direction (the leather changes form slightly when it gets wet with glue).
To improve the durability of the following gluing process, roughen up both the rubber sole of your shoe, and the smooth side of the leather. My tool of choice is relatively coarse sand-paper (No.1 1/2) for the leather, and a fine rasp for the shoe, but just try what works best for you. Afterward, make sure, all the dust from this process is off.
Now it is time to glue the shoes on the roughly cut soles. For this, simply follow the instructions of the glue you have chosen. I have tried a couple of different glues, including Shoe Goo, Hot Glue and two-component adhesive. What worked best for me was a glue called Kövulfix, which I would cal duct tape of glues. In any case, I recommend not to use instant adhesive/superglue because it does not retain elasticity well enough to stay on while dancing. All the useful glues have to be put on both the sole of your shoe (normally a thin layer is fine there) and on the leather (a think layer because the leather soaks it up). While it is a bit tricky, make sure to put an extra round of glue on the borders of the gluing area. Then, wait until the glue looks more or less dry before strongly pressing the surfaces together. While you are doing this, make sure to stretch the leather to avoid wrinkles. If you have any, flatten them out as fast as you can, it is your last chance. Using some clamps to hold down the edge of the leather at the heel and at the tip in front is a really good idea to keep these parts from coming off soon.
3. Final Adjustments
After the glue is dry (typically a day or two later), cut off the leather around the sole. If you have good scissors, that might work. However, as leather can be tough to cut (after all, thats why we use it), I find it easiest to take a wooden cutting board, add two layers of cardboard, and cut on top of this using a really sharp box cutter. The carboard allows to cut deeper than the actual sole, and thereby saw a bit. That way you get a much cleaner cut than if you have to cut the same part two or three times before getting through. Once around, finish the whole off with a bit fine-tuning with sharp scissors for nails.
It has proven useful to finish the whole process by checking if all edges of the sole are glued well to the shoe. For this, walk your fingers around the edge, pulling the leather slightly off the shoe. Wherever it comes off (even if its a tiny bit), use some sand paper to roughen up the surface, clean it, and put some glue in the pocket. Then wait for a couple of minutes and press it down firmly with a bar clamp. This might feel like a bit of unnecesarry work, but I found that those parts will come off soon otherwise anyways, and are much harder to glue back on, once dirt has accumulated in the pocket. After that you are ready to go.
Checking the shoes regularly for parts of the sole that come off avoids getting stuck on a workshop with a half-ripped-off sole (very annoying, believe me). If in this process, you find one of the pockets where the sole loses grip, give it a good tug before gluing it back on (the part that you can rip off easily by doing so will come off soon anyways). To get the surfaces clean for glueing, I generally use some adhesive foil, strips of which I repeatedly put on and take off the surface to clean. Then glueing and clamping, as before, does the trick.
Cleaning the soles
A long time, I used my leather soles only on fine dancing floor, by fear of spoiling the leather. However, when someone pointed out that I was apparently valueing my leather soles more than my ankles, I decided that he has a point, and started using one of my pairs also on slightly sticky pub-floor. While the soles really do not react very well to beer or other liquids on the ground (run away, if you can), I found that cleaning off anything else is much easier than I thought, if you use some tricks.
As a ballroom dancer, you might know those metal brushes used to clean those ballroom shoes. Maybe yours is better, but using the brush from my ballroom times on swing-shoe dirt, was a very lengthy and annoying process. Also, using a sharp knife to "rub off" the glazed sole did not do the trick (except letting my knife go blunt).
Annoyed by the metal brush technique, I tried around, and came up with the following: From my boomerang building, I have many rasps of different coarseness lying around, from very fine (almost like sandpaper) to extremely coarse (essentially 2mm spacing between adjacent spikes). I use one that is relatively coarse (1mm spacing between spikes), to quickly go over the the glazed parts of a sole. This breaks the smooth surface open, such that I can follow it up with rubbing over the while sole with a finer rasp, until the sole feels velvety again. Admittedly the rasping probably puts a little more use on the leather than a metal brush, but with this technique my shoes are nice to dance another time in about 5 minutes.
While leather is cool for indoor dancing, I am still looking around for a decent solution to dance outdoors (leather just does not do well with humidity and catches any dirt it can find). The big challenge is that floors outside are pretty diverse. Here in Dresden we have a nice place with fine gravel, which is fine on rubber soles when its dry. However, when it is wet the alternatives (either granite) or rough stones call for a slippery yet really sturdy material.
Being a kite-builder, I am currently trying to crossbreed my shoes with kiting-materials. And while those material slide nicely and resist abrasion surprisingly well, I am still struggling to find a reliable way to keep them glued to my shoes . But, there always has to be a project for the future, I am sure there is a way...