Since tappers are simultaneously musicians and dancers, they must pay attention not only to movement, rhythm and dynamics, but also to the sound produced by their feet. “Tone” is the word used to describe the quality of this sound, and is often considered to be a manifestation of a dancer’s personality. “Tone for me, comes straight from my heart,” says Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, who is known for her sweet, crystalline tone, and is frequently compared to jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. “I think tone comes from who people really are. People say, ‘Don’t use that tone of voice with me.’ Different tones are different layers of emotions.”
Here are some variables that affect tone:
The surface that you dance on has the biggest impact on how your moves sound. As tap master teacher Lane Alexander puts it, “If you’re dancing on a terrible instrument, [tone] is impossible to control.” Floors for ballet and modern dance, for example, are made to absorb sound. Though tappers can’t always avoid performing on such surfaces, whenever possible, opt for a wood floor that is either sprung or suspended. White maple has especially good resonance.
Shoes and Taps
If you must dance on a less than ideal floor, your choice of shoes and taps can help you make the most of any situation. Professional tap dancers are very picky about their shoes. Ask any working tap dancer how she likes her shoes and taps, and you will likely never get the same answer twice. One up-and-coming tap dancer already getting attention for her smooth, buttery tone is NYC-based Becca Snow. “Different tap shoes affect tone, because they have their own natural sound quality,” she explains.
Snow gets her shoes made with one-screw taps, a built-up sole and sculpted leather on the bottom of the shoe. While the effects of these decisions vary from dancer to dancer, many find that one-screw taps have a brighter tone than traditional three-screw taps, and that a built-up sole can make the sounds slightly louder and deeper. While most tap dancers tighten their taps all the way to their shoes, Walker says she prefers her taps a bit loose. “I like to play with my screws,” she says. “First thing I do at an event is try out the floor, which tells me a lot about whether I need to tighten or loosen my taps for the floor I’m dancing on.” For a more ringing, light tone, one typically loosens the taps. A tighter tap will often sound more deep and will reverberate more.
Weight and Control
A dancer’s technique also impacts his or her sound. “I’m not a heavy hitter, so I have a pretty light tone,” explains Snow. “I think that [staying] relaxed helps control tone for a tap dancer. Relaxed ankles make it easier to hit sounds while allowing a dancer to be more meticulous. The more natural a dancer feels, the easier it is for them to obtain a clear tone.”
The blades of a tap shoe are on the inner and outer edges of each tap. Dancers can create a variety of tones, including subtle slicing sounds by sliding the sides of the foot along the floor, or heavy yet clean sounds by dropping the side of the foot on the floor. How dancers use their weight (over the leg, off the leg, how much they use and when) also impacts tone. For example, in the case of a stomp and a stamp, the steps are practically the same, but stamps use weight, and stomps don’t. The sound of the two hits resonates differently.
Posture plays a big role in tone, too. Dancers who tap in plié typically have a different tone than hoofers who have a more upright style, though this distinction is not universal. Ultimately, a tap dancer’s tone is personal, and takes all factors (flooring, shoes, taps, and even mood) into account.
Perhaps Walker’s tone is clear because she is so invested in the experience she shares with an audience. “When I’m dancing, my tone of voice, I feel, is honest and consistent,” she explains. “I take a deep breath, I look at the people who have bought the tickets. I say to myself, ‘Try to give them the best of yourself, truly and honestly.’ I just want to share with them who and where I am at that moment. I wish in my life [when not performing], I could be as consistent with my tone of voice. I’m trying.”
Mark Yonally is the artistic director of Chicago Tap Theatre.