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FIHHFor Sarah Toner walking gracefully in sky-high heels has never been a problem. A classically trained dancer from her earliest childhood, the sort of poise, flexibility, and confidence that one needs to glide over the ground effortlessly in high heels was second nature to her.

And so after a globetrotting career in which she performed with ballet companies in Europe, Britain and the US, worked as a fashion model on both sides of the Atlantic and, for a flamboyant rock-chick year in the early 1990s, danced on stage with the Pet Shop Boys during their round-the-world Performance tour, she returned home to London to raise her family and set up the Sarah Toner School of Ballet – teaching ballet, jazz, deportment, choreography, body conditioning and a class she calls Fabulous in High Heels.

The idea behind the class, which she developed in consultation with podiatrists and physiotherapists, was to work on the posture, deportment, flexibility, core strength and, most of all, confidence of people who didn’t necessarily want to be dancers but wanted to have a dancer’s poise and cut a dash in heels.

“They way you walk into a room, whether it’s for a meeting or a social event says a lot about you and how you are feeling,” she says. “When you enter a room with confidence you command attention, captivate your audience, perhaps get the job. You create the impression you want, and more importantly, you feel good about yourself. Fabulous in High Heels is designed to help you achieve that – and walk beautifully in even the highest of heels.”

How did you come up with the idea of offering classes in wearing high heels? People have always commented on how I walk in heels. I think dancers generally don’t struggle in heels because of our training. A friend even suggested that I give lessons, many years ago.  I never really found time to pursue the idea. But then one day I was walking past St. Paul’s Cathedral, in high heels, and a drag queen approached me and asked me if I would help him with his act as he liked my walk! He was my first client. After working with him I started to format the original class. That was in 2008.

What was the response?

The classes took off immediately. I made my own cards to advertise the class and left them in a few cafes around Highbury and Covent Garden. A PR for Harper’s Bazaar picked up one of the cards and invited me to meet Newby Hands (Harper’s influential beauty editor). Newby loved the concept of Fabulous in High Heels and wrote a small piece for the magazine and within a month nearly every other fashion magazine had contacted me for an interview plus radio, newspapers and press from Europe.

I was lucky with my timing, too. There was a trend in 2008 for monstrously high heels and I had unwittingly offered my classes at a time when there was a lot in the press about the height of these heels and how many women – even models – were struggling to walk in them.

Two things  then followed; a company in Germany called to ask if I would be interested in touring my class for a shoe company in Austria and Germany and an illustrator asked if she could help produce my book. By then I’d written a practice manual using stick figures for illustrations. The company in Germany then asked if they could print my book and so it first came out in German!

How hard – or easy – is it to teach people to walk gracefully in high heels?

Fabulous in High Heels has been a fun and sometimes frustrating experience. Whilst I love heels, I am not a ‘fashionista’! The key elements of all my teaching are good posture, confidence and, for adults, changing bad habits through exercises. But having had so much press in the fashion magazines I’ve had an awful lot of women coming for a ‘quick fix’ who weren’t really interested in self-improvement but just wanted me to make them to look good quickly! This just isn’t possible! There is no such thing as a quick fix. Like anything in life, commitment and hard work brings results.

In fact the main reason I wrote my book is for students to have a practice guide to take away. This allows them to carry on with the exercises for themselves, at home. I’m afraid though, that I naively overlooked the fact that there are very few people who have the ‘drive’ and obsessive nature that dancers have in order to commit to this!

And so over time I have re-worked the ‘selling point’ of my class. I now probably see fewer clients but I meet and work with some truly inspirational women (and men too!) who come  because they are looking for a longer term plan. I am currently working with a beautiful woman who broke her back 5 years ago and has literally had to learn to walk again. She knows that heels aren’t the be all and end all but having had a very glamorous life pre-accident and having worked so hard to walk again, she just wants to feel good in heels again once in a while. We are working on her balance, core strength and confidence which have all been severely affected. I love seeing her confidence improve every week and she works hard between sessions because she really wants to progress.

I do of course still see those who simply want to look good in heels and have no other ‘issues’! I enjoy all my clients as  underneath my nagging about posture and core strength I always endeavour to make the lessons fun!

What kinds of people take your course?

Literally all kinds! Mums and teenage daughters; bridal parties; women who have a big change occurring in their lives e.g. their children have grown up and they have time for themselves again; divorce/fresh start; going back to work post motherhood. Men who are going through sex-change. People who are just interested in self-improvement.

The oldest student I have had was 78! She came with her daughter who was in her 50’s and her granddaughter who was 15. It was a hoot. And she had the best posture of all of them!

How do you start? What is the first step, so to speak?

I start the class by teaching a short self-foot massage. This is a relaxing start to the lesson and gives me a chance to listen to everybody’s stories and check out some key posture issues with backs necks shoulders and also to look for any problems with their feet that would make walking in heels harder than usual such as tight ligaments; bunions, flat feet.

There are several things that help to walk better in high heels; relaxing the knees really makes a difference, but not so much if the core is weak. Good core strength is key. Strong and supple feet are important too, which goes back to dancers and dancing! I teach many exercises to strengthen the legs and feet in the class but of course if the students who take my class don’t practice when they leave me not much will change!

Is one lesson usually enough?

I never ask a client to come for a second session. The class is a bespoke experience which is reflected in the price. At the end of the class I give them each a copy of my book which contains enough exercises and practice routines to help them keep learning at home.

If a client is keen to explore my classes further then I offer them a regular body conditioning,  ballet or jazz class. Exercise should always be affordable if you want people to commit!!

Is your book available to everybody?

Yes, it can be ordered through my website.

Tell us something about walking in heels that most people would not know.

They say a workman should never blame his tools, but there are so many poorly designed shoes out there. If the balance of the heel is not well placed then walking in them will be difficult no matter who you are because you can’t distribute your weight evenly. Most women don’t realise this but once they do they ‘shop better’ for their next pair! It has nothing to do with the price of the shoe. It’s all about the design.

What height heel should someone start out with?

Regarding heel height. I always suggest to women to start with a lower and sturdier heel if they are really struggling! But if a woman is used to wearing heels and just needs some ‘refining’ then this is not crucial at all.

The optimum height of the heel of the shoe is different for each woman. It depends on the flexibility and mobility of her feet! A woman with a high arch and no restrictions in her Achilles or other tendons can feel comfortable in a very high heel, but a woman who has poor flexibility in her feet will simply not be able to bend her feet into the shape required for a stiletto heel (or even a lower heel if she has really stiff feet!) which is why you see so many women in high heels walking about with bent knees! They have to compensate for the tight tendons!! Exercises can only improve what is naturally present and so women with very tight tendons should be discouraged for attempting an extremely high heel!

What kinds of heels are easiest to wear?

Wedges!

And stilettos, are they the most challenging?

I find high strappy shoes with little support the most challenging; not so much stilettos as they usually enclose the whole foot.

What about boots?

I find boots are easier; I think it’s because a boot gives you the added feeling of support. I am a ‘boot’ girl myself and would chose them over most shoes.

Am I right in guessing that the poise and confidence your students pick up in your high heels classes benefit them in other walks of life as well?

Absolutely! Confidence is key. And if your posture is good then you look confident even when you don’t feel it which can help in situations such as job interviews; dealing with customers; meetings, personal or professional, whatever.

More information on Fabulous in High Heels can be found here, at Sarah Toner’s website.