By Thelma Goldberg
Soft shoe should be integral to all tap curriculums. Appropriate for all levels and ages, studying soft shoe increases awareness of tempo, tone, and placement. Originally done in soft shoes, sometimes on sand, this style is known for a slow, dignified, and graceful approach, made popular in the vaudeville years by George Primrose and in the 1930s and 1940s by the artists known as “class acts.” A famous routine is Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins’ slow soft shoe, known for its beautiful precision and incredibly slow tempo.
Contemporary songs like “Jolly Holiday” (Mary Poppins), “In Summer” (Frozen), and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (Toy Story) offer opportunities to explore soft shoe style in today’s classrooms. Broadway frequently uses soft shoe; some wonderful examples are “Tea for Two” (No, No, Nanette), “Tap Tap” (The Tap Dance Kid), and “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me” (42nd Street).
Simple soft shoe steps can be taught once a dancer can shift weight clearly, finish shuffles to the front, and place the ball change to the side, back, and front.
Traditional soft shoe steps include the single and double front essence, back essence, grapevine, paddle turn, scissors, buffalo, and various time steps and breaks. Layer in brushes, flaps, hops, heels, shuffles, and spanks to increase the rhythmic challenge for advanced dancers. Add sounds carefully, however, to maintain the integrity of the basic rhythms, which can shift from triplets to sixteenth notes.
When performing soft shoe choreography, it’s important to dance with full-body expression and attention to foot and body placement, and to play each note with grace and precision. Introducing your dancers to the beauty of soft shoe will help educate them in the history of tap dance and increase their appreciation for diverse tap styles.
Thelma Goldberg, teacher and director of The Dance Inn in Lexington, Massachusetts, since 1983, is the author of Thelma’s Tap Notes: A Guide to Teaching Tap: Children’s Edition.