What Makes Tap Shoes Make Noise?

Written by paula mccullough
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What Makes Tap Shoes Make Noise?
Young tap dancers enjoy the music of their shoes. (Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images)

Whether it's music to your ears or the making of a good headache, the tip-tap sound made by tap shoes is unmistakable. No other shoes can achieve quite the same pitch and clarity as the specially made tap dance shoe. What is it that gives them that magical sound?

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Natural Tap Shoes

The original tap dancers were black American slaves who pounded out rhythmic beats with nothing but their bare callused feet on the wooden decks of riverboats in the South. The practice moved to minstrel stages where a white man named Thomas Rice imitated the dance style in black face under the stage name of Jim Crow in 1828. The first black minstrel tap dancer was William Henry Lane who danced as Master Juba. Minstrel dancing remained popular until after the Civil War.

What Makes Tap Shoes Make Noise?
Bare callused feet were the original "natural" tap shoes. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Wooden Soled Tap Shoes

Bill Robinson, known as Bojangles, was the first dancer to popularise tap dancing using shoes with wooden soles and heels. Referred to as a "hoofer," his unique dance style involved keeping a relaxed facial expression and quiet upper body while allowing all focus to remain on his feet. While Bojangles danced primarily on the balls of his feet, King Rastus Brown, another popular tap dancer of the time, was known as a "buck" dancer, dancing primarily flat-footed.

Metal Taps

The early 1900s brought about the addition of metal plates, known as "taps," to the toe and heel of the dancers' leather-soled shoes. These taps allowed for a new level of audio performance and inspired the now popular tap dancing style involving the use of both toe and heel in complicated combinations and rhythms. John William "Bubbles" Sublett became popular using these new shoes and is known as "the father of rhythm tap."

What Makes Tap Shoes Make Noise?
Modern tap shoes use thin metal plates to achieve their sound. (Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Metal Types and Thicknesses

Aluminium taps were first used after 1910, but iron taps have also been used. James Godbolt, known as Jimmy Slyde, used iron taps to create a unique tone against wooden floors and became famous for his jazz-style tap dancing. During the 1930s, Fred Astaire's and Ginger Rogers's taps were thicker to create bolder and louder sounds. Today, highly specialised taps are available in a variety of shapes and thicknesses to create the specific tones desired by individual tap dancers.

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