Tools For Tap Dance: Pocket Steps

IMAGE A woman's hand slips into her pocket IMAGEDeep Pockets

Ask tap dancer Jason Janas what he thinks about pocket steps and he will tell you, “The pocket always wins.”  Pocket steps can be current and dazzling, or classic and nostalgic. The positive response from your audience is all the proof you will need that you are indeed winning.

What Are Pocket Steps?

Pocket steps are a collection of rhythms, phrases and steps that a tap dancer accumulates and keeps in the back of their mind, ready for use at a moment’s notice. How do you accumulate pocket steps? It’s not rocket science, you make them up or you can steal them.

“You can trust me. I’m a ROCK-IT scientist.”

“You can trust me. I’m a ROCK-IT scientist.”

Stealing in tap dance is considered complimentary.  However, there is one commandment when stealing in dance, music and art:  Thou shalt not steal… exactly.

In other words, steal a step, play with a little, and change it to meet your personal taste and boom, you’ve got style, baby! Your own style, that is.

Need more advice on how to steal yourself some pocket steps? Detective Marty Tapman and the members of the Chicago tap dance company M.A.D.D. Rhythms have got you covered in this original short film by film maker Adam Salinas and Tapman Productions.


Make One Yourself

Be a step creator. Translate a drum riff from a favorite song into your dance, borrow from another dance discipline and tap-ify it. The sounds and movements that appeal to you will give every step that you create your own personal flavor.

As an example, here is an original work of mine. It was created for my dance company, The Tapmen, as choreography for our bow after a show and it is entitled… Bowography.


Watch this video on YouTube.

Bowography is meant to showcase a different sound, accent, or rhythm that I really like and am known to “pull out of my pocket” from time to time.  The 4  themes of Bowography are: basic tap “notes” of the heel, toe and side of the heel played during the dancers’ introductions, sustained heels and toes, clicks and scrapes and finally fast heels and toes.  Similar to the Shim Sham, Bowography organizes my pocket steps into 4 simple phrases, or Time Steps.


Special thanks to Bril Barrett, Jumaane Taylor, Starinah Dixon, Donnetta Jackson, Donyella Jackson and M.A.D.D. Rhythms, film maker Adam Salinas, tap dancer Jason Janas and non-profit organization Audible Odyssey.

One hand in my pocket” by Camera Eye Photography (CC by 2.0)

Tap Dancing on Vinyl (Marley) Flooring Has Risks

Little by little we are seeing hardwood dance floors disappearing beneath layers of synthetic coverings to protect and extend the life of the floor, and doing so is like keeping a collectible toy in the packaging – an investment, always pristine, never to be played with.  For tap dancers whose art form has evolved with wood flooring in mind this is a bit of a let down.

You'll appreciate the diversity in your investment portfolio when you're older.

You’ll appreciate the diversity in your investment portfolio when you’re older.


Modern dance studios are state-of-the-art facilities that must cater to multiple disciplines of dance, from ballet to modern to tap and even Indian kathak and Irish step dancing. However, if a small to medium sized studio only has three rooms and hosts ten different forms of dance/exercise classes, it may be doubtful that tap alone will pull the weight of 30-50% of the flooring budget to justify having a special room.  Times are tough and the expense of flooring can make or break a fledgling dance studio, but can we compromise on the health and progress of our students, young and old?

Why Marley?

For practically any form of dance, a PVC (poly-vinyl-chloride) surface has become a popular alternative to wood.  This type of vinyl flooring is eponymously referred to as “marley” after the British company that originally produced the floor covering up until 1978.

Marley is light, portable, flexible, relatively inexpensive and provides a long-lasting surface that protects the flooring underneath. On top of that, dancers love it; marley won over wood in a poll conducted at Philedelphia’s University of the Arts, where the students in the modern department were asked to try the two surfaces side-by-side.

So why aren’t we rolling out the marley in every dance studio?  For tap dancers, marley may pose a problem, as tapping on vinyl surfaces technically limits the tap dancers range of sounds and movements and causes extra wear and tear on a tap dancer’s body. [Read more…]

Tap Shoe Review: Capezio’s Boy’s Tapster

About Shoe Reviews:  For my reviews I personally wear, practice and perform in the shoes.  The demands the shoes are subjected to are rigorous and must be considered when compared to the skill level that the shoe is intended for.

Capezio Boy’s Tapster


Described as an “entry level unisex oxford”, though marketed as “boy’s”, the Tapster is a very popular shoe among beginning tap students.  The Tapster has a look that resembles more advanced tap shoes and comes with several amenities not offered by other beginner level shoes found at department stores such as Payless.  With a price tag ranging from $15-$30, the Tapster is an affordable tap shoe for beginner tap enthusiasts young and old.

Specifications for the Capezio “Boy’s” Tapster (from
  • Durable soft PU (Polyurithane/Plastic) Upper
  • Plastic heel with pre-attached riveted Tele Tone Jr.® taps
  • Cushioned foam insole with star print
  • Absorbent brushed microfiber lining
  • Plastic sole with rubber non-skid sole patch
  • Achilles notch for comfort
  • Available colors: Black, Tan

The Tapster: Deconstructed


Durable soft PU (Polyurithane/Plastic) Upper, Cushioned foam insole with star print, Absorbent brushed microfiber lining, Achilles notch for comfort, Rubber non-skid sole patch:

Tapster3The polyurethane material used for the upper of the shoe is as soft and durable as the description says.  The plastic upper is a good substitute for synthetic leather, and even resembles the real thing up close.  The foam insole is relatively comfortable and the upper encases the entire foot, and foot slippage (where the foot slips out of the shoe) is a big improvement over the bargain bin Mary Jane style of tap shoe. [Read more…]

Tap Is Music (And I Can Prove It) Part 2

Welcome back!  I hope everyone enjoyed Part 1 of Tap Is Music (And I Can Prove It).  We’re halfway there so read on, true believers!

So far we have covered how tap dancers can control their dynamics to make steps loud and soft and how they can sustain certain “notes”.  This article will focus on pitch and timbre, completing our comparison of tap to the four elements of musical tone.


What is pitch and how do we measure for it?

Pitch is the relative highness or lowness of a note.  Notes of different pitches have distinctive sound wave frequencies that are measured by the number of complete  waves or cycles per second.  It is easy to determine changes in pitch simply by looking at its waveform.

For example, this is the waveform of C1, the lowest C note on my piano:


And here is the highest C note that my piano plays, C6:


It is plain to see that the lower pitch contains far fewer waves than the higher pitch.  The crests of the waves are spaced much farther apart than the high C’s, which are jagged and very close together.


You Can Tune A Tap Shoe, But You Can’t Tuna Fish!

This simple test can be applied to tap dance, and it is possible to tell different steps apart based solely on their waveform.

Take the flat heel and the flat toe taps.  The heel of the tap shoe generally produces a much deeper tone than the thinner front tap.  Using my Dancing Fair GS-1s, I recorded a single tap on both the heel and the toe.  Can you tell which of these two waveforms is the heel and which is the toe?


The first wave form belongs to the toe, with its tight and narrow ridges, and the second waveform belongs to the heel, with large and loping strides from one wave to the next.



Here is a list of some of the variables that will alter a tap dancer’s sound:

The Tap Shoes – Sole Thickness (Single, Double, Triple)

The Taps – Size, Weight, Thickness

The Dancer – Center Of Gravity, Weight

The Wood Floor – Wood Type, Grain, Coating (Stain/Finish, Polyurethane/Epoxy)

That’s, like, a bazillion different combinations, and that’s not even factoring in variations in weight and posture, different species of wood, or the different brands of floor coating, among other things.  The pitch possibilities are positively infinite!

Google Images

 Calculating Permutations?  Is that the one starring Ben Affleck?


Timbre is the unique vibrational form that is produced by the particular combination of the strong harmonics of an instrument.  This is also what enables us to tell one instrument from another and why an oboe sounds like an oboe… because of its timbre.  With regards to an orchestra, it is the combined timbre of all those instruments together that creates an audible experience that ranks among the greatest pleasures on earth, and why the nearly 100 members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a much richer sound than my old four-member band from high school.

That and talent.


It is the unique timbre of tap dance that is its greatest musical strength.  People respond to the sounds of tap dancing like nothing else on earth – the warm sound of a clean strike against a wood floor, the scrape of sharp metal against the grain.  I could imagine the people of Europe and the Middle East as early as 1200BC, during the iron age, perking their ears as the first metal tools beat against wooden constructs.  Besides tap dance, today we still enjoy the sound of metal on wood through vibraphones, drum cymbals, and latin instruments like the Guiro and Cabasas.

“Portrait of Beethoven by The Sea” (artist’s interpretation)

 Less Def Tone, More Tone Deaf

What keeps tap as being immediately recognizable as an instrument is its greatest musical weakness.  While tap dancers make “def” rhythms, if I understand the vernacular jive of kids these days, tap dance has no tone.

When we hear an instrument play a tone, or note, what we are really hearing is a series of tones.  A tone is a sound that has a definite recognizable quality.  What we hear as a note, like G or C#, is fundemental frequency, the tone with the lowest frequency.  The other higher-frequencies, called harmonics,  are covered up by the fundamental frequency and made imperceptible, thus giving the listener the impression of a single note.  (There are ways to hear the harmonics, however.)

When a tap shoe strikes the floor there is no discernible fundamental frequency.  What we get is a cluster of similar tones that create what scientists like to call “noise.”  The pitch is still discernible, but it would be impossible for a tap dancer to play a specific musical note, interval, or chord.


Google Images

Thus the “Tristan Chord”  is lost to tap dancers.  Really.


This puts tap dance in the realm of unpitched instruments, which are instruments with indefinite pitch and no definite tone, and in league with instruments like the tambourine, most drums and the cowbell.  Just because an instrument is unpitched doesn’t make it any less awesome!

It’s like you have a fever and there is only one cure.


Tap Is Music

It is through these four elements – dynamics, sustain, pitch and timbre –  that we perceive the physical and subjective qualities of music.

The art form of American tap dance conforms to all of these elements, and then some.  Few percussive dance forms match tap’s rhythmic versatility.  Save for some types of body drumming, I am aware of no other percussive dance form that is as audibly adaptable as tap dance.

If tap dance contains all the elements of music then I will have to conclude that tap IS music.  You may have heard that before, but I can prove it.

Tap Is Music (And I Can Prove It) Part 1

Tap dance is tied more closely to music than most of us realize.

Tap’s musical potential is so great that I would not find it odd to one day see a tap dancer as an integral part of an orchestral ensemble or having a reoccurring role in contemporary chamber music – or your next-door neighbor’s kid’s high school garage band.  It is this generation of tappers’ embrace of advanced musical concepts that has helped usher in the rise of tap dance’s status from a kitschy novelty act to that of a higher art form.

Dance On Postage Stamps

Finally, Goofy will get the respect that he deserves!


But how strong is tap dance’s relationship to music?

There is so much to explore, like intervallic relationships – the tones produced when two notes are played together.  Take for example the happy tone produced by playing the notes C and E together on a piano, or if the E is lowered one half step the melancholy tone produced from playing C and E-flat.  How does a half step make such an impact?  How do we do this in tap?  Can the complete gamut of human emotions be experienced through the distinctive sounds of metal on wood?  As tap dancers it is our responsibility to listen to the sound of dance.

For tap dance to be considered music it must adhere to the four basic properties of musical tone, which are: its intensity or loudness, its duration or length, its frequency or pitch, and its vibration form or timbre.


Intensity, Dynamics

No, this is not an ad for a Calvin Klein fragrance.

Intensity or loudness is a no brainer when it comes to tap dance.  The more force one applies to a step the louder it will be.  Children who don a pair of tap shoes for the first time will quickly become aware of their capacity to create very intense sound before they learn a single step.

Of course, I always treasure those first tap classes.



Because you can’t HEAR sarcasm in a blog post.

Here’s the thing about the intensity of sound: there exists both high intensity and low intensity.

Dynamics in music is the varying levels of volume of sound that a musician can create, and with that comes varying levels of emotion that can be introduced into tap dance.  If loud can equal excitement and fast can mean ferocity, then quiet can equal poignancy and slow can mean thoughtfulness.

For my readers who are teachers, next time try having your students perform an exercise, combination, or whole dance as quietly as possible.



To sustain a note is to prolong its duration, and certain instruments have a greater capacity for sustain than others.

Sustain can be measured by a device called an oscilloscope, an electronic instrument used to view and evaluate waveform patterns that tell us about a sound’s frequency (pitch), intensity (loudness), and duration (sustain).

Robert Gauldin gives a concise explanation in his comprehensive textbook Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music:

On an oscilloscope, most musical tones exhibit a characteristic shape consisting of intensity or loudness and duration that is called an envelope.  An envelope normally consists of an initial attack followed by a steady state or sustained sound, and concludes with its eventual decay or release.


For example, here is the envelope for a piano.

Compare that to the sustain of a clarinet:

The difference is that a clarinet runs on human power; the sustain of many instruments is dependent on the stamina of the musician.  Wind instruments and vocalists depend on lung capacity and breath control, while some string instruments are dependent on the endurance of their musician’s arm muscles and bowing technique.

Here is where tap dancers are limited.  The “notes” that involve striking the floor in tap cannot be sustained without the aide of acoustic or electronic accoutrements.  Whereas wind and bowed string instruments can sustain any note, the only steps in tap that can be sustained are those that slide, glide, and scrape.  A sustained tap note could involve swishing your foot in a circle, turning your whole body, sliding à la Dr. Slyde, or attempting your best long jump… as long as your feet remain in contact with the floor.

This can also prove favorable for a tap dancer; it is my theory that a pair of legs can produce a more forceful amount of pressure for a longer period of time than either a pair of arms or a pair of lungs.  How long could a tap dancer sustain a particular note?  Hours?  Days?  The world record is open if anyone wants to give it a try!



Though considered a legitimate dance form by few, nobody can sustain a “limbo” like Keanu Reeves.

 Stay Tuned For Part 2 of Tap Is Music (And I Can Prove It) In Two Weeks!