Magazine Feature

How Taylor Swift, Madonna and More Dance in Sky-High Stilettos: Designers Tell All

Madonna
Ferdy Damman/AFP/GettyImages

To keep Madonna and her backup dancers on their feet in an assortment of Prada and Miu Miu heels, stylist Phillips  relies on heel pads, gel pads and insoles.

Ever wonder how artists spend hours in death-defying shoes? Designers reveal the tricks that make it possible

For pop divas, it's one thing to wear a spiky stiletto while walking the red carpet, and quite another to don them while twerking, jerking and dropping it onstage, night after night.

"It's an athletic feat to perform in high heels," says high-end shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, who has created custom-stage footwear for Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez and others. He likens the ­experience to a gymnast navigating a balance beam -- but for hours at a time. "In high heels, there is no balance in the point of the heel, so these musicians train to be performing on the balls of their feet for the entire time."

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images; Boot: Courtesy of Giuseppe Zanotti
Rubber Soles RiRi Can “Work” In:The star opted for custom pale suede chap-boots by Zanotti for her 2016 Anti World Tour. The Italian footwear designer often grounds his designs with chunky heels and rubber soles, “to make the talent feel more  secure when performing,” says Zanotti. 

PAD THEM ALL OVER

Though Weitzman says the look of the shoe is paramount -- for Swift's 1989 Tour, he was given sketches of the costumes and instructed to create styles that complemented them -- style can't trump comfort. Accordingly, he adjusts the internal architecture, like adding a hidden latex pad in the ball of the foot for extra cushioning: "It offers the comfort of a platform without the instability."

New York-based celebrity podiatrist Suzanne Levine ­recommends cushioned support with focus also on the arch since lack of structure there can cause the foot to rotate inward. "The shoe should also be lightweight and ideally made of natural materials, like leather, especially if they're doing dance moves," says Levine. "An ankle strap can help with stability."

Swift: Christopher Polk/TAS/Getty Images for TAS; Lopez: Jeff Kravitz/AMA2015/FilmMagic
Platforms For Action: Swift donned Weitzman boots customized with a low platform and slightly ­rounded toe that later ­retailed for $798 in ­September 2015.J.Lo’s Heel Change: Lopez wore five different outfits at the 2015 American Music Awards, but the only shoes she danced in were by DSquared2, who lowered the heel height.

LOWER THE HEEL HEIGHT

"Even the most amazing dancer needs to feel safe," notes Giuseppe Zanotti, who has created custom styles for Rihanna and Lady Gaga. And while Zanotti might add internal platform for comfort, a big platform makes the shoe unstable for movement and is generally avoided.

If the choreography is particularly dynamic, Dan Caten, co-founder of DSquared2, will lower the heel height, as he did for Jennifer Lopez's 2015 American Music Awards performance. Levine suggests that performance shoe heel height should be 2.5 to 3.5 inches (typical high heels are 4 to 4.5 inches high). Roomy toe boxes help too, says Levine. Zanotti designed a square-toed mirrored bootie for Selena Gomez's Revival Tour with a sturdy stacked heel.

Larry Busacca/PW/WireImage; Sketch: Courtesy of Louboutin
Lace-Ups  “Pour La Reine”:Though she ­frequently hits the red carpet in sky-high ready-to-wear Louboutins, Beyoncé had the Parisian footwear ­connoisseur craft a more dance-friendly nude and mesh lace-up for her ­Formation World Tour. Below, the designer’s sketch, which ­references white and nude ­versions of the boot. 

PRACTICE (AND LACES) MAKES PERFECT

Arianne Phillips, Madonna's long-time stylist, has relied on Miu Miu and Prada, and has a good sense of what works for the most active sections of the show. Sneakers, naturally, are the most comfortable style, she says. For other cases, "we start with heels we know will work for both Madonna and the dancers." Phillips prefers styles that can be adjusted at the last minute with lacing or buckles and stresses the importance of testing and ­breaking in shoes at rehearsal, though sometimes even that doesn't help. She recalls a particularly memorable situation for Madge's MDNA Tour: "We put 13 male dancers in high heels," she says. "That was a challenging learning curve for us, and for them!"

This story originally appeared in the July 23 issue of Billboard.