HOW TO BUILD OR CUSTOMIZE TAP SHOES
Tap shoes directly affect the outcome of your training and practice. There is a saying: “A bad workman blames his tools!” This is true to a very good degree as I have seen many brilliant tap dancers with shoes that I would have thought were not adequate yet their skill is amazing. There are definitely reasons a good quality shoe and taps and even the surface you’re hoofing on can elevate your art form into genius level. Following is what I believe is necessary for good tap shoes and how to get around the problems.
A good tap is made of high grade aluminium and has space underneath. The space helps to amplify sound like cupping your hands when clapping. I have always wondered why taps are aluminium. This I think, is primarily due to making the manufacturing process easier as aluminium can be punched out quickly. Aluminium is soft and malleable. It also doesn’t rust. In the movie BOOTMEN (AMAZON/ ITUNES / IMDB) the dancers make taps from mild steel. Mild steel would work really well but would eventually leave rust marks. Aluminium however on the other hand leaves a thin layer on any floor. This is not noticeable or maybe even not happening at all on a wooden floor. If you are tapping on any other floor you will notice that there will be a build-up of black smut. This smut is aluminium that oxidizes and turns black. It is rather difficult to remove from the floor. I’ve done research into this and have yet to find a product that can remove it easily. Any suggestions? I used to use clean bleach and run out of the studio – dumb!
Taps should fit to the edge of the shoe to ensure that sound is made on punches or even rim shots. Taps that fit on back front and side edges perfectly will possibly made for a specific shoe. Of course that limits the success of any custom made shoe to the availability of good fitting taps.
Sound of taps is also dependant on the hardness of the aluminium and tightness of screws. Supposedly you can tune taps by loosening the screws a little. I don’t recommend this as the taps can go flying and loose screws will wriggle themselves out pretty quickly, except maybe on the heels as they will not necessarily be effected. Back taps are smaller so they will benefit from being slightly looser and therefore sound a little louder. I’ve noticed that even soundboards under taps make a difference but no shoe or tap or soundboard ever produces the exact sound even if you try to tune them. Even both my feet have produced different sounds with the exact same product, sole, soundboard and tap.
I’m a fan of BLOCH taps. They just seem to be better all round. The taps are thicker and even the screws are thicker and have a good head. My other good brand name taps have always cracked down the middle. They are not readily available in South Africa so it is possible they have been updated by now. There are also many other manufacturers if you make a search such as Capezio, Thommie, Leo, Neo Rhythmo.
Double taps have a different sound and they usually get nailed in. I think American step dancers still use these and they really have a nice loose sound. I know thought that certain competitions like I.D.O. do not allow double taps.
SOLES should be thick and hard – at least 1/4 inch. I’ve seen some very thick soles too. Soft soles will not make good sounds. Rubber is really a no-no. Also screws will fall out of rubber easier. Possibly a good soundboard might make the sound better on a plastic or rubber sole. Thick soles enable toe stands to be done really easy. Toe stands are not really done on the tip of the toes like ballet dancers. Some dance associations are teaching this and is rather a bad idea. It also makes dancers believe they need split sole taps shoes to get toe stands right. If you’re serious about tap I don’t think Split Sole Tap shoes are an option really, but if you are doing beginner to intermediate level and on a casually basis it can be fine. Ballet dancers use point shoes that support and take the weight on the side of the foot away from the toes. Tap dancers will not have this support. A fully extended ankle is not the position of a toe-stand and will make use of shin muscles. This is actually a weak position. Rather the dancer should cramp the foot and stand on the edge of the tap so that the muscles under the feet take the weight. Very few tap shoes have strong toe boxes to support your feet.
Thin soles are not great for very young tap dancers. They often complain about feeling the tap through the sole.
FIT should be correct. Any play in the shoe will not help you especially in things like toe-stands. Obviously here we need to bring up looking after your feet. Some tap shoes come in narrow, medium and wide fit. Knowing your correct fit can save you some soreness on those days you really do a long tap workout. Keep your toenails trimmed short. Bashing your toe by doing punches will cause some pain if toe nails are too long.
SCREWS need to be wide and thick. Often dancers replace their screws because of them falling out. Unfortunately once that hole is made it is there to stay and often strips or becomes too wide for the screw. The solution is either get a thicker screw or fill the hole with glue. A good way is to glue a toothpick or something thicker into the hole and then when the screw is screwed in again it disperse the wood fibre into the leather to create a very tight fit. White wood glue is great for this. I have also had great success with PRATLEY’s WONDAFIX. This is malleable and water proof glue. Other products like super-glue does crack and carpet glue or shoe glue dries too soft. Trust me here though when I say that the less you mess with the screws and holes, the better in the long run.
FLOORS, oh dear the dilemma of finding a great floor. Suspended Hardwood floors are best. A floor acts like a drum that amplifies sounds. A hard movement will have a bass sound. A softer movement will have more of the ‘clicky’ metal sound. Scraping needs to be amplified. Scraping on a tiled floor is just plain boring. A suspended wooden floor will make that scrape all the more interesting. I think it is the responsibility of dancers to make sure they are using wooden floors as much as possible. Laminate floors are not really wood but can produce an interesting sound. I’ve’ been inside studios that have Masonite, plywood and chipboard floors too. We all do what we can. I’m so against ballet mats. I wish I could boycott any competition that uses them yet we all have to compromise. I know tap dancers and teachers who will not dance on anything but wood. Surely Jason Samuel Smith or Savion Glover will never dance on anything else. Always disappointed that shows like SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE who supposedly support tap don’t realise they are actually damaging the tap art form by not using the correct floors. Never heard tap sound great on that show. Microphones on a stage do not always really the correct sound as they need to be filtered in case of feedback and audience rumble. Once I read great notes online from the sound engineer from the TAP DOGS show about which microphones they used to get a good sound. I searched online again but have not found this resource again. I wonder if that is still available somewhere.
CUSTOMIZATION most people think that customizing a shoe is really about the look, but honestly I think we all need to spend more time and energy making the shoe better. Our South African tap shoes have always been low quality (sorry). It’s the truth. We all know it. The soles are too thin. You can’t screw taps into them. They can be fixed a lot by adding a thicker sole or building up the sole with a few layers. This is usually costly but will allow you to use screw in taps and lend great support.
The upper in general can be of any fabric. Breathable is better so again leather is best. Vinyl or similar will make you sweat and get damaged and scuffed very quickly.
I’m busy experimenting on how to put taps onto sneakers and will do a separate post on this.
You can customise your shoes by either ordering them this way or just taking some paint or dye or even fabric pens and putting your own design on your shoe. If you have a practice shoe you can have lots of fun – You can always re-dye them.
Thommie tap shoes can be made to fit your foot with a gazillion different measurements and come in just as many colours variations.
At one point I ordered a two-tone ballroom shoe with a Cuban heel which is higher than a normal heel. I then got the closest shoe maker to build up the sole. Then screwed in some BLOCH taps. I had a problem with the heels as the tap needed to be quite small and from experience I knew that the smaller the tap, the less sound they’re going to make. Also the Cuban heel was hollow and made it difficult to keep the screws in. I opted eventually to use different taps on the back. I used double taps – the ones with the brass ring in the middle. I don’t know if you can get those anymore. I just had some in a box that someone gave me. I’ve had the shoes so long that I have replaced the taps so many times I’ve lost count. Eventually added another built up sole and repainted them all black. They are more worn on the inside than the outside. These shoes were also made to fit my feet. I traced my feet on a piece of paper and faxed it to the manufacturers and they made them to fit. They fit perfectly and even have a box in the toes for some more support. I always show off my ability to do one footed toe stand wings in them. What’s truly is amazing that they turned out so well and they were made by the same company who make really bad tap shoes! Just goes to show what you can achieve if you have the knowledge and experience and desire to make a better produce.
Neo Rhythmo Inc has pro tones which are black taps and melodies taps which are many awesome colors. Very awesome and original. Melodies taps are fairly priced for a great way to make your tap shoe stick out on stage.
My favourite is the all white BLOCH Jason Samuel Smith Shoes pictured above.
Often forgot are the laces we use. Most laces are great quality and don’t break, however the end points should not touch the floor as standing on them will break them. Have you ever tried to thread a lace that has a frayed end? I often dance with my laces undone and that’s obviously not going to help. Making your laces different colours is a great easy way to customise your shoes.
Be warned you can damage your shoes during customisation; even the shoe maker can make mistakes. Please understand that I too cannot be held responsible.
Possibly the biggest issue facing most tap dancers is cost and availability of shoes. Most people just buy what’s available at the nearest dance shop and I know due to lack of availability they just settle. The internet and a credit card can of course allow you to purchase overseas at a cost. Delivery to South Africa is sometimes hindered to seriously unfair business rights issues. Honestly guys should you be giving someone the rights to import a brand if they are going to only bring in some of the shoes. Also import taxes are high on men’s shoes. Maybe a friend can bring you a gift.
THE FINAL PRODUCT
Let’s summarise what’s a great tap shoe.
Strong correct length Laces
Correct fit LIKE A GLOVE
Wooden Heel, not hollow
Leather sole, all in one, pretty thick and solid
High quality aluminium taps, probably better with a board
Everyone wants some badass shoe for themselves, or something that motivates them. I dare you to experiment with shoes, taps, floors and build-ups. We are artists after all.
Of course all this is my own opinion. I made the effort to know as much about everything I could and have put taps on for my own students many times. I hope this can help you for your next purchase. If you have customised shoes, please share with us by emailing us.