The most common thing for someone to say to me at a milonga is “you can’t dance in those shoes”. About 5 minutes later, they realize they’re wrong.
When I started dancing, one of the main attractions was the chance to dress up often, including high heels. Since I was about 14 I’ve had more high heels than places to wear them. When I finally started dancing tango, of course I’d wear the most fabulous shoes I could find. These turned out to be 6”/15cm heels with 2″/5cm platforms covered in glitter. I felt great in those shoes.
Four years later, I took my first trip to Buenos Aires. Concerned to appear respectful, I bought my first pair of actual tango shoes. I called these shoes my “flats”. As always in flat shoes, I felt decidedly unsexy. When I stepped onto the dance floor in these I felt like I was wearing house slippers. I got a bit conformist when I went to Argentina, and I regret it.
On that trip I visited every tango shoe store, just to ask if they would do custom shoes with platforms, and how high. The best offer I got was a meager 1 cm, about 1/6 what I was used to.
As a leader, I find that shoes with a lot of elasticity in the sole, like thick boots, work very well for me and I can follow in them as well. These days in Argentina a lot of dancers are using rubber soles. Certain kinds of rubber give you strength and still pivot well.
I encourage my students to experiment with shoes, because some followers dance so much better in flats than heels, but they don’t know until they try. For everyone, I recommend avoiding expensive and unfashionable dance shoes, buying normal shoes they find attractive and having the soles re-done if necessary. Shoemakers can even build you a mixed sole, with the pivot area in one material and the outer edge in another.
I also believe that tango needs to be more contemporary and fashionable so it doesn’t get stuck as a cliché and relic. I want people to dance, so I want tango to appear as relevant to a lot of different cultural contexts.
Here’s a basic guide to choosing shoes for tango.