The shoes worn by dancers have played a crucial role in the development of style and technique. During the 18th century light, heeled shoes showed off the dancers' feet and ankles and focused attention on the brilliant footwork of the period, particularly enhancing stamping steps. They did not, though, have the suppleness necessary for the preparations and landings of very high jumps, nor did they allow the dancers to skim the floor at speed or dance on pointe. By the early 19th century women dancers began to wear the new thin, heelless, satin ballet slipper, tied with ribbons around the ankle and stiffened at the toe by rows of darning. These allowed ballerinas to stand, very briefly, on their toes, which were protected by cotton wadding. This new feat ushered in a new dance vocabulary of hovering balances and quick, light bourrées, as well as a new image of the ballerina as gravity-defying sylph. Low-heeled slippers were also worn by women, and both sexes wore a wide variety of other footwear as determined by the nature of their role; for example, boots, sometimes with spurs, were worn by both sexes in Polish roles, low-heeled shoes with bows were worn by male courtiers, and sandals were sometimes worn by gypsy characters. The boxed-toe shoe (stiffened through layers of shellac and wadding around the toe area and with a strong, springy inner shank to support the arch) began to be developed in the latter half of the 19th century and paved the way for another quantum leap in female technique. It made possible a range of bravura effects which we now regard as standard, including multiple pirouettes and hopping on pointe. It also changed the nature of the pas de deux, since ballerinas could sustain extended balances during which their partners could angle them through the numerous flattering positions.
When Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham chose to perform barefoot at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, this not only changed the appearance of dance but was also a powerful statement of their artistic philosophies. Now that they no longer had a thin-soled ballet slipper to create a slippery divide between them and the floor, or pointe shoes on which to perch, Duncan and Graham presented themselves as women of the earth, acknowledging gravity rather than floating away from it. The naked traction of their feet against the floor gave their dancing a more vigorous, sensuous, and emphatic rhythm and provided the leverage necessary for some of Graham's most vertiginous backward falls.
Some later choreographers returned to shoes, but these fulfilled very different functions from the classical ballet slipper. Trainers were favoured by the 1960s' avant-garde who were creating minimalist, anti-virtuoso dance. These shoes were designed by sports manufacturers for speed, comfort, and cushioning, and on the feet of dancers they not only carried no suggestion of art or glamour but also implied that dance was a kind of task to be performed in the most practical and sensible way. In the 1980s choreographers temporarily lighted on another item of street fashion, the Doc Marten shoe whose blunt, rubber-soled heft was closely linked with the crashing momentum, violence, and risk taking that characterized that decade's New Dance.