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Participants hit up Hintonburg dance studio The Flava Factory for a weekend heels class. [Photo © Raisa Patel]

Towering and empowering: Inside Ottawa’s high-heeled dance scene

At The Flava Factory in Hintonburg, a dance is practiced that marries a number of choreography styles with a confidence-boosting pair of shoes. It’s called heels, and in Ottawa, dancers believe the style is here to stay.

Heels instructor Patricia Foster, 23, warms up before teaching on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Foster has been teaching her own class since 2017, around the time the style gained popularity in Ottawa. She credits the birth of heels to celebrity choreographers Aisha Francis and Danielle Polanco. “But heels has also borrowed from a lot of styles,” Foster said. “A lot of choreographers have made it their own and added their own flair to it.” [Photo © Raisa Patel]
Caitlin Handy, 27, limbers up for some pre-routine stretching. Handy started Heels two years ago after moving from Cornwall, Ont. to Ottawa. While searching for a drop-in dance class, Handy was told to try a heels class at The Flava Factory taught by choreographer Laura Bacic, who was instrumental in bringing the style to Ottawa. “I didn’t even know what Heels was,” Handy said. “I tried it out once and was hooked ever since.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
Dancers begin learning the afternoon’s routine, which Foster tries to mix up each week. Twenty eight year-old Megan Lee (far left), swapped hip hop for heels more than a year ago, but it wasn’t easy. “I remember seeing a class and I was like, ‘That is so intimidating. I could never do that,’” she said. [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
After finding a beginner class, Lee decided she was ready. “I did it for the first time and I loved it. You get to be sexy and no one’s judging you, and you get to express yourself sensually without people labelling you,” she said. “It’s embracing your sensuality and being a woman.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
It’s time for some floor work, which gives dancers’ feet a bit of a reprieve while engaging other parts of the body. Extending the leg is a defining feature of heels dance because it gives the appearance of elongated lines. “It’s also very challenging,” Foster said. “It’s a good workout.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
A dancer waits for a new sequence of moves to be taught. In a heels class, there are a number of possible footwear choices, from ankle boots that offer a little extra support to open-toed stilettos. Foster says a towering heel height isn’t mandatory: dancers can start barefoot or with a lower heel until they build up their stamina. [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
Audrey Tong, 25, takes a breather to watch how Foster perfects her technique. The routine is paused each time a dancer has a question or wants to go over the specifics of a move. Tong has been dancing in heels for the past four years and was initially wary of the footwear. “When I first started, I was wearing one-inch booties. I was like, ‘This is already really hard!’” she said. “Slowly and surely I upgraded to three inches, four inches, and now we’re all rocking it in stilettos.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
As dancers get more familiar with the routine, Foster splits the class into two performance groups. While one group of three performs the routine, the other participants snap photos and record video. It’s a chance for dancers to share their moves or something they can keep just for themselves.  [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
Foster leads a group in a performance for the rest of the class. These days, a Heels class in Ottawa can draw anywhere from a handful of students to a packed classroom. It’s a far cry from Foster’s start two and a half years ago, when it was just her and Laura Bacic in the studio.  “As people heard about it, it gained momentum really, really fast,” Foster said. “Recreationally, as a hobby, I think it’s here to stay. I think it’s something that’s been missing from a lot of communities.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
The groups switch out, giving other students a chance to own the dance floor while their classmates observe. Lee’s heels bear the trademark scuffs of a solid floor routine. She now dons them every week, despite never wearing heels in her “normal life”. Lee was certain she wouldn’t last during her first class, but she surprised herself. “I was able to do the entire class in heels,” she said. “I’ve never worn them for an hour in my life.”  [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
Like Lee, Handy says heels is all about how confident the class makes her feel. “I was never outgoing or crazy. I was shy and just really self-conscious,” she said. “But being in this class, everyone is so positive, everyone is so supportive and you kind of forget about your own insecurities. It’s just about having fun and loving to dance with all these other people who love the same thing as you do.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
Foster and her students show off what they’ve learned during the final performance of the class. Foster says the body positivity movement is another important aspect of the Heels community, which is a space that also includes men. “It’s not based on your size or your height or your boobs,” Foster said. “You watch any of the women or the men here dance and you see that right away. You see that what’s sexy about them is not how they look, it’s how they act.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
After an hour of strutting and flaunting, Lee and Tong unstrap and unzip themselves from their shoes. But when those heels are on, the women feel particularly in tune with their bodies. “It’s having that connection with your body and actually being comfortable to touch your own skin, touch your hair, touch your face,” Tong said. “Making expressions in the mirror. It’s not just for the audience, it’s also for yourself. I think that’s what’s really powerful.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
The afternoon ends at The Flava Factory. Foster has turned off the music and her students have shrugged into coats and traded their stilettos for winter boots. But the sound of heels clicking against wood will fill the room again soon enough, for the street dance studio’s Monday class. “A lot of people find confidence here,” Foster said. “Society is always trying to pen us in. And what this class gives us is an outlet. You’re free to just express your sexuality the way you want. It’s just you in the mirror.” [Photo © Raisa Patel] 
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