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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 Beyonc√©, 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."

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."

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.

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.

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