Spring clean: 5 steps to spruce up your tango shoes

Photo of tools for cleaning dance shoes

The sunny days and birdsong have reminded me to have a good spring clean and shoes are top of the list. Here’s 5 steps to get your shoes looking tip top for a summer of dancing.

Photo clockwise from top: suede eraser and brush; suede sole brush; sharp scissors; mild baby wipes; leather brush; shoe cream.

1. Check and replace heel tips

If you do nothing else to spruce up your favourite tango shoes, check the heel tips and replace them if they are worn. They will feel like new shoes the next time you wear them. Worn tips affect your balance and leave nasty scratches on floors. It’s best to replace them when they have worn to an angle, before they wear so much that the metal spike inside is exposed.

With a few tools and strong hands you can do these yourself but for the sake of about £10 I always take mine to the experts. If your cobbler doesn’t have tips to fit, or the right colour for your shoes (they usually come in black or light brown) you can source them online. If the tips your cobbler has are slightly big, ask them to file them down on the sides.

New heel tips applies to mens shoes too, of course. It’s very common for the inside of the heel to wear at an angle, and you’ll want to get them repaired before it starts affecting your balance.

The tips of lightweight latin dance shoes can wear down particularly quickly. A clear plastic heel protector will help reduce the wear. I sell several sizes in my shop – do ask if you need a size not listed and I will source them for you.

2. Clean or replace soles

Cleaning soles is one of those things that is easy to do but easier still to put off. Left unchecked, sticky soles affect floor-feel, pivoting and decoration. Sometimes, of course, it’s the floor that is the problem, but keeping soles clear of buildup will minimise the need to use those arch enemies of shoes: talc and water.

The easiest way to clean leather soles is with a plastic card. An old loyalty card with rounded corners is ideal. As in the photo below, use a pushing action to scrape black spots off. Use the rounded corners of the card to target individual spots, and the flat ends to scrape the edge of the sole. This technique works well on both hard leather and soft leather soles. If you have a stubborn oily patch on a leather sole, dab it with cotton wool and a tiny bit of nail polish remover.

Photo of tango shoe leather soles being cleaned with a card

Suede soles get flattened and shiny as patches of floor varnish and other gunk compress the suede. You can restore their fluff by brushing with a stiff wire brush. First, take the shoes and brush to a sink, or place over a large bin or newspaper. A lot of dirt and fluff will come off and it will make a big mess. As in the photo below, brush towards you, along the length of the shoe. Don’t move the brush side to side. Need a brush? I sell wooden brushes and pocket-friendly folding ones in my shop.

Photo of dance shoe suede soles being brushed

If the soles have really had it they can be replaced. The trick is finding a good cobbler who won’t recoil at mending dance shoes. Be sure to discuss with them what options they have as you’ll want the leather and finish to feel right. They may also need to know if you want the whole sole replaced back to the heel, or just the forepart. You can expect the job to take a couple of days and set you back around £25 to £35. For suede, you may need to buy the soles and take them to your cobbler since not many of them stock blanks. Suede soles can be readily found online, usually in one size for women and one for men, trimmed to fit. They are best fitted by a cobbler since they have the industrial-strength glue that shoes need.

3. Clean, repair and treat the uppers

For all types of upper, give the shoe a thorough visual check and snip off any frayed threads with very sharp scissors. If a thread looks like it might pull, a tiny dab of flexible superglue should stop it from unraveling. For bonus points, tease the thread through to the inside of the shoe first to protect it even further.

Leather uppers are easy to clean: simply dab dirty areas with a damp cloth or mild baby wipe. To treat the leather, use a shoe cream in a close colour match to the shoes. Woly is a widely available brand and will cost you about £5.00. It’s quite potent stuff so use in a well-ventilated area or outside. Rub a small amount of cream onto the leather using a rag or kitchen paper, avoiding the edge of the sole and any delicate trims. Leave it to sit for 10 minutes then buff to a shine with a rag or brush. The great thing about creams is they penetrate the leather and keep it flexible: perfect for tango shoes.

Patent leather is the easiest of all. A damp cloth and tiny bit of mild soap will remove marks. Go over again with a damp cloth and no soap, then buff with a dry cloth.

Suede uppers require a bit more work to clean. Stay well clear of soap and water as the suede will stain. With a suede eraser use short, firm strokes to remove shiny marks, scuffs and stains. Erasers usually come in a pack with a small brush and will cost about £4.00. You can find them anywhere shoe polish is sold. Suede erasers are hard and dry. Don’t use a pencil eraser as they are more greasy and may leave a mark. I also wouldn’t recommend using a nail file to clean suede as it permanently scuffs the leather and may leave a white mark.

Once you’ve gone all over with the eraser, use the brush to remove the flaked bits of eraser and return the softness to the suede, brushing in whichever direction looks best to you. Finally, take the shoes outside or to a well ventilated room and give them a fine mist of protector spray. Scotchgard is a good brand that I’ve used for years. It will help deter new stains and protect your shoes from any accidental run-ins with water.

Fabric uppers, including satins, velvets, laces, sequins and glitter, are a little trickier to clean. It’s best to focus on problem areas rather than aiming to transform the whole shoe. A damp lint-free cloth and tiny bit of soap or a mild baby wipe will remove most marks. Use a gentle dabbing action rather than scrubbing furiously. Any moisture on satin and velvet can be dried with a hairdryer on the lowest setting to avoid leaving a watermark.

4. Clean the insoles

Insoles get dirty. Sometimes they smell. Thankfully as they are hidden under feet they usually tolerate a bit of rough handling to clean.

A mild baby wipe works wonders on leather insoles. You can happily scrub at toe stains and use a clean rag or kitchen paper to dry. Don’t treat leather insoles with shoe cream as they may feel slippery.

Give toe stains on suede a good scrub with an eraser and brush away the flakes, then treat with protector spray. Clean patent leather insoles the same way as uppers but you can skip the buffing. For satin insoles, use a mild baby wipe on stubborn stains but avoid saturating the material. As with satin uppers, use a less-is-more approach.

Check insole liners all over for any signs of lifting or scrunching. They can be secured back into place with tiny dabs of superglue to the underside of the insole. If an insole liner has disintegrated, it’s time for new ones. A cobbler can replace these on most types of shoes including open toes.

Finally, for closed toe shoes, sneakers and mens shoes, place a sachet of dried lavender in the toes or a couple of deodorising balls to fend off the hum.

5. Clean your shoe bag

If you’ve never looked inside your shoe bag, chances are there is all manner of dirt, talc and other stuff lurking in it. Turn the bag inside out and shake that stuff off or use a vacuum cleaner with brush attachment. Satins and woven nylons can be washed by hand in cold water with mild soap. Let them dry completely before use. If you really want the bag to look like new, most types can be ironed. Place a pillowcase or tea towel between the bag and the iron to avoid sticking and use a low heat setting and no steam.

After all that hard work you will feel like you have a new pair of shoes! If you need a good cobbler and are in London, I recommend Rompski’s in Fulham. They are particularly good at replacing hard leather soles and heel tips.


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