Style, Fit, and Sound: Buying Tap Shoes

Women's Tap dancing class at Iowa State College, 1942.
Tap dancing class at Iowa State College, 1942.

Jack Delano / Library of Congress

Every great tap dancer starts their performance by putting on a good pair of tap shoes, but it can be tricky to figure out which styles are the best for each level of expertise. Tap dancers should choose the ballet slippers that best suit their needs, though most share the same core aesthetics and functions. 

While younger tap dancers tend to prefer the Mary Jane style, more experienced tappers may enjoy oxford tap shoes or even tap shoes with heels for an added challenge; pointe and split-sole jazz tap shoes are only for the most advanced dancers as the increased flexibility of these shoes only really sound great when dancers land each difficult dance step precisely.

It's essential for dancers to choose tap shoes with the right style, sound, and fit for the dancing required at his or her individual level.

Styles of Tap Shoes

Tap shoes are available in a variety of shapes, styles, and colors, though most tap shoes are made of four materials: leather, canvas, wood, and plastic. Depending on the age and expertise of the dancer, the materials used and shape of the shoe changes.

Young tappers tend to most often use shoes with a single ribbon tied into a bow on the top of the foot known as Mary Jane style tap shoes. These beginners shoes provide security and extra support for balance as young dancers learn the ropes of tap dancing.

Older, more experienced dancers typically prefer flat leather oxford tap shoes or tap shoes with heels, but these tend to be a little more difficult to balance on, as they place more weight on the ball of the foot and the toes, and for more advanced steps, the split-sole tap shoes and pointe shoes also come in handy. The split-sole shoes allow for double tapping and generating more clicks per beat while the pointe shoes allow female tap dancers to focus on more center work and performance.

Fitting Tap Shoes

Overall comfort and fit are extremely important when purchasing tap shoes because tap sounds won't be clear and precise if the tap shoes don’t fit perfectly, so it's important—especially for amateur dancers—to keep in mind that sizes of tap shoes may be quite different than street shoe sizes.

When selecting tap shoes, it's important that the dancer find a style and fit that's as snug as possible without being painful or uncomfortable. If a dancer is not sure of two sizes, he or she should opt for the smaller size, though.

Tap shoes should always fit snugly, with very little space in the toe box. With frequent use, most tap shoes will stretch and allow more room for the dancer's feet. For this reason, it's important that dancers err on the side of too small than too large.

Sounds of Tap Shoes

When choosing tap shoes, it's just as important to consider how they sound as how they look and feel. Tap shoes differ by the number of screws attached to the taps.

The screws are adjustable, so different sounds can be produced even with the same number of screws in a pair of tap slippers. For this reason, many tap dancers often loosen or tighten screws to adjust the sound made by their taps.

The most common tap shoes have three screws on each shoe, but after dancing for a while, dancers develop a personal preference for tap shoes determined by specific tap sounds. So it's important when shopping for tap shoes to adhere to the type of screw configuration the dancer wants based on his or her personal experience and needs.

Buying Tap Shoes

Tap shoes may be purchased at dance supply shops or online. If you're buying your first pair of tap shoes, however, it's best to try them on, preferably with an expert salesperson who understands the needs of young ballet students.

As with fitting any type of shoes, be sure to wear the same type of socks or tights you will wear while dancing. Although many stores carry disposable socks for this purpose, it's important for dancers to test their shoes with their own gear. That way, these dancers can walk around in the tap shoes and try a few tap steps and foot stretches that will most closely resemble how they'll be using the tap shoes in practice.

Tap shoes will generally cost between $40 to $100. Don't spend too much on your first pair, however, as you will quickly find specific details of the tap shoes that are most important to you and need to purchase a pair that's more suited to your individual style of dance.