Is it The Shoes?
I get asked about shoes. A lot. By students, friends, even complete strangers. Often, after a show, the first and only question from kids is “Can I see your shoes?” I show them the bottoms of my shoes, complete with gleaming metal taps. “WHOAH!” They are impressed. But often the subject of shoes can be confusing to dancers who are just getting started. Taps? Leathers? How much should I spend? With that in mind, here is some info aimed at prospective shoe-shoppers and other interested parties.
Many dance forms have a specific shoe, and one that is often peculiar to their own traditions. Flamenco, tap, clogging, ballet, Irish step, English clog; they all have shoes that have evolved alongside the dance form and are very particular to it. At the same time, many styles do not rely on specialized shoes, although some came into being partly because of footwear for particular workplace environments.
For our purposes, let’s take a look at tap and Appalachian flatfooting and clogging. Both forms can benefit from specialized shoes, but are in no way dependent on them. I usually tell anyone who is just starting out, “get something comfortable with a leather sole.” This is a little vague, so to be more exact, lets say an all-leather Oxford style shoe. I like cap-toes, but wing-tips, brogues, anything like that will work just fine. You want something that feels good on your feet and makes a good sound on the floor. You’ll get a much better sound if that leather sole is extra thick. My favorite trick is to cruise the goodwill for old dress shoes, and then take them to a cobbler and get extra leather put on the bottom. Going this route, you can get a good pair of multi-purpose dance shoes for $50-$100.
But what about the taps? Shoes with taps on them are good when you may not otherwise be heard, but taps make a pretty intense sound, and in a situation where you are working with live acoustic music in an intimate audio-setting (my usual scenario) taps or hard-sole shoes can be a little overpowering. The leather soled shoe has the potential to be a much subtler instrument. That said, anyone who is performing with any regularity will probably want both (I usually make a last minute shoe-decision based on the floor, the acoustics, the size of the room etc.) If you do an outdoor show in front of thousands, there’s a good chance that your tasty leather-on-wood sound will get lost unless you have a good mic and the sound dude is really on top of his or her job. (I can already see the comments flooding in. Let’s just say for now that “dude” is not gender-specific, OK?)
My all-time favorite shoes are made by Just Tap, a small family owned business in Hillsborough, NJ. These folks make a really superior shoe. They don’t make sizes, the shoes are custom fitted to your feet using measurements and tracings. Not surprisingly, they are by far the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn. Get these if you can, you will NOT be sorry. And tell them I sent you, I have not given up hope of an eventual celebrity endorsement…
Whether you are looking to flatfoot at a dance and need some leathers, or take tap class and are therefore looking to get some tap shoes, plan to spend as much as you think you can afford. Except at the goodwill, shoes are an area where you usually get what you pay for. A range of $50-$275 may seem like a lot, until you consider that for your purposes as a percussive dancer, these are your instrument. Try getting a decent violin for $300…
Another great shoe is the Bloch Jason Samuels Smith tap shoe. For $130-$175, these are a very reasonably priced option, probably the best “pro” quality tap shoe you can get without spending a bit more. They come with taps already attached (and they are not easily removed) which is either a plus or minus, depending on what you are looking for. They are heavier than other shoes I have tried, and the taps are bigger. This takes some getting used to, but I found them to be excellent once I got used to the extra weight.
As far as leather-soled shoes for clogging, flatfooting, social dance etc, I have two favorites. A nice leather-soled option for those on a budget is the Aris Allen. The sole is not as thick as you might want for percussive dance (they are perfect for partner dancing) but a good cobbler can easily fix you up with a thicker, heavier leather sole. Once you factor in this additional expense, you are almost up to the cost of the Bloch shoe above, but if you want shoes without taps, they are a good starter shoe. They won’t last quite as long as some of the other choices discussed above, particularly if you dance a lot, but for students on a budget, they are a great option. Slightly cheaper still are these “Clogging Oxfords.” The are perhaps not quite as swanky as the Arris Allens, but they have a good hard sole that will make some sound, and have the benefit of being the most affordable.
As far as the taps themselves go, Capezio, Sansha, Bloch, and others all make different styles of taps that are slightly different sizes, so you may need to experiment to find what fits your foot best. I have slightly wide feet and have found the Sansha taps to be a better fit than the narrower Capezio taps.
What does all this mean? Well, you have options. It really depends on what you you want the shoes to do. My vote? Throw down for the Just Taps. Your feet will thank you.
P.S. Since hearing a pair years ago, I have been on a quest to find someone who is making wooden taps, so if you have a lead? Well, you know where to find me…