Riding on the Heel: Polysemic empowerment.

It is said that in the imperial era in the East at the end of the 16th century, Sah ‘Abbās the Great1, with the largest cavalry in the world, wished to establish ties with rulers in Western Europe in order to have allies when facing his greatest enemy, the Ottoman Empire. Thus, in 1599 Abbās sent his first diplomatic mission to Europe, specifically to the courts of Russia, Norway, Germany and Spain. As a consequence, a wave of interest in all things Persian swept over Western Europe. To understand this phenomenon, Fenton (1997) quotes Hughes-Freeland, who argues that Western art has for centuries been interpreted on the Aristotelian principle that art imitates nature. It should be added that although this idea has been challenged, especially in modern art, the principle continues to be applied both within and outside Western artistic traditions thanks to subsequent colonialist interventions. Thus, in the following lines, the importance of the significance of the incorporation of the shoe into the Persian style (hitherto for military use) by the European male aristocracy will be broken down. It has transcended into the 21st century as an identity device to embody an experience of sophistication and empowerment, especially in men who dance in High Heels.

In the mid-18th century, as the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment exploded in Europe, came a new respect for the rational and utilitarian, and a greater emphasis on education than on privilege. In England, the aristocracy began to wear simple clothes linked to work. This resulted in the abandonment of jewellery, bright colours and ostentatious fabrics; now came an aesthetic of dark, sober and homogeneous colours. Men’s clothing no longer functioned to define social class, and as these class boundaries became more tenuous in terms of clothing, the differences between the sexes became more pronounced. Fenton (1997) mentions that there is a problem with using Western concepts to discuss events or ideas in non-Western cultures, but what happens when a non-Western concept is incorporated under Western mechanisms that detach it from its predecessor function?

Historically, the use of high heels has led to misunderstandings and conclusions that opened the discussion on how men, regardless of class, could become citizens through education. While women, in contrast, were labelled as emotional, sentimental, uneducated and second-class citizens. Female desire began to be constructed in terms of the irrational and high heels -now separated from their aristocratic function- become a highly complex device. By about 1740 men had stopped wearing them, so in Western culture the wearing of high heels became exclusively associated only with women, albeit with certain restrictions related to morality and reproductive health.

In mid-nineteenth century France, photography began to change the way women were seen. Those working in pornography were the first to use the new technology, taking pictures of naked women for postcards, where the models posed in positions reminiscent of classical nudes, but wearing high heels, generating a direct association between pornography and the re-signification of high heels as an erotic device exclusively for women. When the 20th century arrived in the United States of America, during the 1930s and 1940s, there was an increase in media production through the mass media (cinema and magazines), increasing the representation of women’s bodies on high heels. Already in the 1950s it was very common to see these bodies, wearing high heels called «Stilettos», which with common use began to construct a physiological alignment, kinaesthetic qualities and very specific bodily aesthetics that are associated, on the one hand, with extreme refinement, elegance and stylish; but, on the other hand, with fragility, languor and sexualization through the extreme feminization of these bodies.

According to Grau (2007):

[…] cultures and histories are present in all our activities, in the sense that they are constructed through the participation of human beings in society and their engagement with belief systems that operate through and beyond discursive principles […] (pp.193).

That is why, the legacy left by this representation has subsequent echoes in the symbolism that Western Europe, from an ethnocentric perspective, (Fenton, 1997) has imposed on the use of the High Heels shoe as an identity device, such as clumsiness and instability, the negative side being related to the feminine character. Subsequently, countless discourses from feminist perspectives will spoken of a fetishization of the female body as an object of consumption for the patriarchal market, being subjected to aesthetic standards where the use of high heels was seen as essential, reflecting a constant disciplining of the attitudinal and identity performance of female bodies.

Although under these analyses, the normalization of high heels did not take long to be incorporated into the repertoire of movement of female bodies that became reinforcing agents of a hyper sexualized female identity, as in the case of Betty Grable2 and Marilyn Monroe3, who were two of the most popular pin-up models on an international level, thus opening the possibility for high heels to broaden their field of action in musical cinema. As Fenton (1997) mentions in Western culture, dances can be forms of art, entertainment, recreation, social interaction, therefore, these became protagonists in many films of the golden age of Hollywood cinema, managing to introduce the handling of the High Heels shoe within the practical stories and records of «how to dance» femininity in the bodies of the dancers (Fenton, 1997:117).

High heels became part of the uniform of female attire in a variety of contexts. However, this historical journey helps to nourish the study of high heels as a signifying device by taking up the following questions:

[…] how can meaning be given to the different dance genres and techniques if not in terms of the dancers who characterize them? And, how can they be differentiated from one another if not by gestural movement, the use of energy and space or, in a word, by their movement identity? […] (pp. 203).

In the last years of the twentieth century, this practice has been detached from musical comedy to be called High Heels, which under this update is characterized by including different styles of urban music, combining choreographies with movements with a high degree of dexterity. However, it was not until the easy accessibility of the internet in the 21st century that the High Heels style achieved its transnationalization (Fenton 1997:197) through social networks, thanks to its strong representation in urban music videos, especially those with rhythms related to energetic and sensual gestural movements. A constant characteristic within the practice of High Heels is that, contrary to the production of choreographies with large groups or bodies replicating a sequence of movements, High Heels as a practice insists on highlighting the gestural and identity characteristics of the performers. Although the style of High Heels does not focus on being a dance of a social character, its strong heritage that it preserves is that of boasting a strong representational character through the stage and the video camera.

What is interesting and contrasting, when trying to analyse this dance that starts from a hyper-feminised identity in the female body, is clearly found when High Heels is performed on the male body. To understand this, Grau (2007) draws on the philosopher Michel Foucault who explains that:

[…] the subject constitutes himself [sic] in an active way, by the practices of the self, these practices are not, however, something that the individual invents by himself. They are patterns that he finds in his culture and that are proposed, suggested and imposed by his culture, his society and his social group […] (pp. 190).

Riding on the Heel. Polysemic empowerment.

Among the expressions that can be found in the intimacy of people who practice High Heels, one can hear «riding on the heel» as an expression that detonates the action of dominance through a physicality in the ability to know how to walk, dance and stay on the heels. A basic condition of High Heels, as in many professional dances, is learning to march. According to Morris, White, Morrison and Fisher (2012), they mention that:

[…] there are numerous comparative studies on walking in flat shoes and high heels, finding that the most characteristic difference between walking in flat shoes and walking in high heels is greater hip flexion and less knee extension. These kinaesthetic aspects characterize a femininity as a construct reinforcing the idea of artificiality, these aspects that are based on the biomechanics of gait […] (pp. 179).

This show that the art of «riding on the heel» to walk implies alterations not only physiological, but also in the self-perception of the body but what does walking in high heels entail?

Under this brief anthropological, ethnographic and biomechanical analysis it is possible to find coherent relations with the hypothesis that the practice of High Heels in men makes bodies appear more attractive by making them more «feminine», since the effect of high heels is to pronounce a sophisticated and empowered gait, among which a greater rotation of the hip in the transverse plane (pelvic rotation), a greater vertical movement of the hip in the coronal plane (lateral tilt of the pelvis); shorter strides and above all a greater cadence. (Morris, White, Morrison and Fisher, 2012:179).

It is noticeable that the axis of the body changes, so that the balance on the verticality is weak, however, the dominance of «riding on the heel» reminds the bodies of their constant struggle to achieve verticality with elegance. This also gives rise to contradictions in the practice of High Heels, because such a demand for this adequacy in order to dance fluidly requires the disciplining of the bodies. This means that the practice itself is configured in oscillating, curvilinear, cadenced movements, which are socially associated with the feminization of bodies, and which are therefore highly attractive to both sexes.

Femininity, which emerges as a consequence of the action of «riding on the heel», serves as a vindicatory gesture in which men belonging to the LGTBQ+ community question the attributes historically associated with the sophistication and empowerment of the individual, but at the same time it manages to consociate the experience of High Heels in men with the ancient fascination of the European monarchy (Grau, 2007). In short, the practice of High Heels connects a past that predates itself, but which is embodied through male bodies. Although it is true that times have changed since the incorporation of the Persian heels, the elaboration of femininity in Western Europe today has not changed, and in fact the politics of identity rights in terms of the manifestations of gender, cultural and sexual diversity are hanging by a thread, not to say that they are probably in danger in the face of the global panorama. It is for this reason that touching on these practices, considered by the dance field itself as outside the sphere of high culture, opens up debate when it is said that we are in a post-colonialist period, whether post-identitarian, post-racial or post-gender, since the concepts of race and gender are social constructions like any other and are full of historical concepts with a great ideological connotation. (Grau, 2007:200).

So, if high heels create a feminine body out of a masculine one, and serve as a visual marker of femininity (Wobovnik, 2013:84) within the contemporary disciplinary framework. The practice of High Heels is open to other masculinities, it is possible to observe that the attire that the practising bodies tend to wear, can be framed from markedly masculine aesthetics, i.e. men with short hair, beards, jeans or sportswear, or men with very small, narrow clothes that highlight the forms manifested by the use of high heels, as in any of the real female bodies. Is it possible that “riding on the heel» is a practice that does not only exist in music videos or on stage as a proof of technical mastery? Is it possible that the practice of High Heels is socialized from the simple fact that its peculiar gait makes the configuration of neutral identity to be eliminated?

To this Grau (2007) would reply that:

[…] as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur said, «understanding» is not only a «way of knowing», but also «a way of being». For to embody the sense of sophistication and empowerment generated by high heels would be a practice that would be available to anyone who wished to experience it, with all the contradictory charge that surrounds it both «broadening [its] horizons, but remaining connected to [its] essence»[…]

It can be argued that the practice, learning and transmission of High Heels in men has generated an increased interest in the new generations of both amateur and professional dancers; and with this, it is only possible to find its manifestation mostly in indoor spaces, such as dance halls, hotel conventions, and urban dance festivals where it is included. Although there are some exceptions, such as the case of the mediatic French artistic director, teacher and choreographer Yanish Marshall4, who through the viralization of social networks has shown his practice in public and emblematic spaces in Paris, as well as his connection with the music and fashion industry.

In this case, in particular, he supports the idea that only in city contexts is it possible to develop a practice of this magnitude, due to the fact that there is a flexibility in the standards of sexual nonconformity and gender identity that its inhabitants can manifest. It also shows that these are contexts where there is a constant succession of cultural influences, and that today they continue to be considered centres of economic, cultural and political power, as capitals of nation-states. But beyond contextualizing this practice in the capital cities, this somehow reaffirms this principle of sophistication and empowerment, above all an empowerment, turning into a polysemic behaviour, where empowerment, emancipation, autonomy and the attribution of powers, take on a body in the way of being of the individuals who practise it by inhabiting spaces where it is possible to wear and march in high heels.

To conclude, it would be good to take up the premise that the ethnocentric perspective (Fenton, 1997) in which many scholars position themselves, places the analysis of High Heels as a dance style, in a place of contradiction. For this, ethnocentric positioning is not free from the cis-hetero-patriarchal principles we have been reviewing throughout the essay. High Heels alone has (though not by self-determination) clearly positioned itself as a Western dance or dance form, where such performances are not considered illegal or grounds for police persecution. However, even within the clearly open contexts, the specific case of High Heels in men is placed within the margins of mass entertainment and as an exceptional manifestation. Our Western culture continues to attribute to dance performances, and doubly so to male High Heels, a character of divertimento, sarcasm and parody towards femininity in male bodies. Reflecting what Fenton (1997) mentions, much of what Western observers have overlooked in studying other cultures is the result of a basic ignorance of the forms of aesthetics, in this case the aesthetics of the feminization of male bodies, and which unfortunately remain aspects that somehow prevent more serious study by academics, art critics, and dance programmers alike.


  • Fenton, R. (1997). A Dancer Thinks About Dance’Cross-Culturally. In Journal For the Anthropological Study of Human Movement, 9 (3), pp. 115-125.
  • Foucault, M (1978). The Ethics of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom, trans. Gauthier, D. Bernauer, D. Rasmussen (eds). In The Final Foucault,Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, p. 11 (orig. edn in Philosophy & Social Criticism, 1987, vot. 12, nos. 2-3, pp. 319-88).
  • Grau, A. (2007). Dance, Identity, and Identification Processes in the Postcolonial World, Susanne Franco & Marina Nordera (eds). In Dance Discourses. London: Routledge, pp. 189-207.
  • Morris, P. White, J. Morrison, E. Fisher, K. (2012). High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of female attractiveness. In Evolution and Human Behavior, 34 (3), pp. 176-181. doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2012.11.006.
  • Wobovnik, C. (2013). These shoes aren’t made for walking: Rethinking high-heeled shoes as cultural artifacts, Karen Keifer-Boyd & Deborah Smith-Shank (eds). InVisual Culture & Gender. Published by Hyphen-UnPress, 8, pp. 82–92.
  • Ricoeur, P. (1981). Hermeneutics and the human sciences : essays on language, action and interpretation In Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, trans. Thompson Jonhson, B. (ed). New York : Cambridge University Press, pp.44.

1For more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbas_the_Great

2For more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Grable

3For more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marilyn_Monroe

4For more information: https://shiftmovementwa.wixsite.com/home/yanis-marshall

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