So You Think You Can Dance?

Dancing in the streets sounds like fun and makes for good music videos, but in reality it’s a killer on the talents’ legs. Classes for dance and sport demand a performance floor, one that gives as good as it gets. Before you convert an old classroom into a dance studio or build a new multipurpose facility, take stock of what’s underfoot.

The first thing faculty and facilities departments should agree on is the purpose of the room.“Will it be a ballroom or a contemporary dance space? Will it be a recreation classroom by day and a bridge hall by night? These are the questions to be asked,” said Randy Swartz, president, Stagestep, Inc. in Philadelphia.“The activity should dictate the flooring choice. If it’s going to be a multipurpose room then ask ‘What will the room’s dominant activity be?’ and go from there.”

Playing it Safe

Safety is the reason for all of this soul searching. A hard floor that returns energy directly to the body poses a physical danger to the user. Dancing, jumping, or any other percussive activity on a non-absorptive floor returns three times the user’s body weight directly back, resulting in shin splints, back and knee problems, fatigue, strains, and even broken bones. In an interview granted to Harlequinade News, a twice-yearly newsletter put out by Harlequin Floors, orthopedic surgeon Boni Rietveld, M.D., B.A. (MUS.) and head of the Dutch Medical Center for Dancers and Musicians stated that, “As far as (injuries caused by the floor) are concerned, it is evident that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between dancers’ injuries and the floor on which they perform. It’s logical, even if not always easy to prove.”

A too-resilient floor causes problems as well. “Imagine dancing on a trampoline,” says Swartz. “Sure, it absorbs and returns energy, but it offers no lateral foot support. That is the major cause of turned ankles.”

Even a traditional sprung floor needs to be fine tuned to the activity. “A sport floor needs to be stiff to accommodate a bouncing ball,” explained Bob Dagger, president of American Harlequin Corporation in Moorestown, NJ. “The athletes make up for the lack of bounce with high-performance sneakers. Dancers, with their bare feet or thin leather shoes, don’t have that luxury.”

“Something has to be compromised if you try to run a dance program and a basketball program on the same surface,” continued Jeff Tarleton, director of sales, Gerstung/Gym-Thing, Inc. in Baltimore. With that said, there are ways to create a successful multipurpose room. “For instance, you can juice the ball with more air to compensate for a bouncier dance floor,” states Tarleton.

Starting at the Bottom

Whether it’s new construction or a remodel, everything starts with the sub-floor. “We always assume we’re building on a concrete slab,” said Swartz. “And we’re hoping that it is sealed. If not, a below-grade floor acts like a sponge and pulls up moisture and minerals from the ground up, causing your floor to cup, warp, or swell.”

On top of the hopefully sealed concrete slab, a sub-floor is installed. This is where a floor gets the bulk of its performance. The type of sub-floor depends on the type of activity and how long the program expects to exist in the building. “If a school only wants to temporarily house dance programs in different areas, they may want to look into panel sub-floors,” said Dagger. Ten to 20 percent more expensive than monolithic or permanent sub-floors, panels easily pick up and move to the next location.

Studios and performance stages dedicated to dance or other types of movement should choose a permanent sub-floor. Both, however, work in the same way. Designed with wood, polyurethane, or both, the sub-floor provides the consistent flexibility and stability needed throughout the entire surface. “A floor that is hard in some spots and soft in others can be a hazard,” said Tarleton. The sub-floor should also be “local,” meaning if someone is jumping, another person balancing three feet away shouldn’t feel the bounce.

Coming Out on Top

A top floor is laid out over the sub. This top floor is usually a vinyl. It can be wood but, more often than not, studios are choosing a wood-look vinyl. “It’s very easy to maintain and dancers prefer it,” Dagger observed.

However, not all agree with that. “Real wood is a prettier and more permanent statement than vinyl,” countered Tarleton. “Maintenance staffs know how to take care of the material.”

Whether wood or vinyl, proper maintenance remains key. But that doesn’t mean it’s difficult or costly. “A dry mop in the morning to remove dust and dew, an entrance mat that pulls debris off feet and shoes,” said Swartz. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, but the floor is being used in an extreme way so it should be treated well.”

That includes using the proper foot wear or no footwear at all. “It’s more of a courtesy to the dancers,” said Dagger. “They have their bodies and faces on the floor so you don’t want to introduce street debris.”

Another mistake is to confuse standard commercial vinyl flooring with dance flooring. “Standard commercial products contain aluminum oxide or silicon carbide particles for extended wear and good slip resistance,” Dagger explains. “They basically work like a fine sandpaper and abrade bare feet. It’s downright dangerous.”

Consistency is Key

Also dangerous is choosing one flooring system for your rehearsal space and a different one for your performance space. “The Kennedy Center wanted to do that, and it’s not a good idea,” recalled Tarleton. “Dancers should perform on the same surface that they practice on.”

And if your dance department demands a Marley floor, you can inform them that no such thing exists. A brand produced in England between 1973 and 1977, it was cheap, reversible, portable, and so popular that it has become the generic term. “It’s like calling a tissue 'Kleenex,'" said Dagger. Besides, today’s floors perform much better than the Marleys of old, allowing dancers to reach new heights and still land safely.