How not to fall down in high heels

In Vancouver, women are paying a former runway model to show them how to walk tall

Julia McKinnell

In Vancouver, a former runway model is giving classes to teach women how to walk in high heels. At 6 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, the professional-looking women, who have each paid $25 to attend, are sitting in a semicircle listening to the tips dispensed by High Heel Appeal workshop instructor Suzanne Fetting.

Forty-six-year-old Yvonne Van Amerongen raises her hand to share a nightmare high-heel story. “I was in Grade 12. I’d worn a dress to school that day and high heels to go with it. A boy I had a crush on was coming up the hallway. I was descending a set of stairs toward him and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to impress him.’ The next thing I knew I was in a heap on the floor in front of him. That kind of swore me off high heels for the rest of my life. I just always associated high heels after that with the danger of humiliation.”

Another woman tells her story of devastation in seven words: “On grass. Downhill. I fell face first.” Fetting seizes this tale to launch into a what-not-to-do list. “When you’re wearing heels, avoid walking on grass. It’s hard to avoid stairs but avoid grass. Avoid sand, gravel and slushy surfaces. If you do happen to be in that situation, walk on your tippy toes.” Fetting is wearing a backless halter top and black tights. Her walk is almost a dance of strides and spins in her shiny size 11 black heels. “Do not allow the heel of your shoe to touch the ground at all. You’ll sink and you’ll fall backwards. I’ve seen it,” she says, miming walking on grass.

“Okay, who knows what not to wear?” she asks the group.

“Stilettos?” says one woman.

“Oh my gosh yes! Who’s been at the nightclub and seen the girl in the stilettos who totally can’t walk? It’s not sexy. Stay away from stilettos. Start off small.” She suggests “a little comfortable chunky heel and work your way up to stilettos.”

From Fetting’s closet has come an array of heel styles, now perched on a demo table. She holds up the one she says is best for beginners. “The wedge is great because you have all this contact with the ground so you have more balance and security.” The wedge looks like a ramp as opposed to the spindly skewer of a stiletto.

Glued inside her well-worn pair of red-and- white-polka-dot wedges is a pair of white padded insoles. “My mom said, ‘Take those insoles out, they’re so ugly.’ ” Now all eyes shift to Fetting’s mother, a youthful grey-haired woman who’s sitting in on the course and who’s already been singled out once for wearing a pair of no-no kitten heels. “Cute name but a deadly heel,” warns Fetting. Not for the beginner. The insoles, she agrees, are ugly, “but I don’t care because I can dance in these shoes for hours. They’re like slippers.”

Which brings her to the next important subject: customization. “You want to look gorgeous when you’re wearing heels, that’s why we wear them, but we don’t want to feel pain.” She hands out little inserts and gel pads that can be bought cheaply at shoe stores and then stuck in strategic spots on the foot and shoe to cushion against pain. She also passes around a $12 gel insole for open-toed heels. “It prevents your toes from sliding forward.” A product called Sure Grip is a must-have, she says. “There are so many shoes out there that are really, really slick on the bottom.” A Sure Grip sticker stuck to the sole gives traction. Another great tip, she says, is to take your set of car keys and scruff the bottom of your shoe.

“So, should we walk in some shoes now?” The women don the heels they’ve brought. For the next 45 minutes, they learn to walk jutting their hips from side to side, heads held high, shoulder blades squeezed together.

Elke Porter, a mother of two and editor of a German-language newspaper, is thrilled with her new knowledge. “I was sure I was the only one who was unsure of how to walk around.” Porter’s mother convinced her that wearing heels was bad for the feet, “so I never wore any.” Then, after years of martial arts, Porter only wore shoes that “one can safely run away in.” Still, there were Christmas parties she longed to wear heels to. Since the workshop, she’s waking in the morning and doing Fetting’s ankle-strengthening exercises and practising walking up and down her hallway. Twice, she’s ventured into the outside world in heels. “I feel much more secure knowing to put the toe down first and then the heel,” she says. When she can afford it, she’s buying more heels “to go with the one lonely pair in my closet.”