A Spring in Their Steps

When the School of Theatre and Dance at Ohio’s Kent State University prepared to move into a new space — including three dance studios — in 2010, one of the key issues educators had to look into was what kind of floors would be needed for the University’s diverse and busy program.

Among the priorities: “The best flooring we could afford,” says Andrea Shearer, the school’s Dance Division director and associate professor.

Curricula, enrollment, space, and future needs of dance programs differ, of course, so too their floor needs. Different movements require different responses under foot, at least ideally, but limited space and budgets can make things less than ideal.

For example, “it is a common assumption that a well-designed sports floor will suit the needs of dancers,” explains large supplier Harlequin Floors, “but there are two vital differences between a dance floor and a sports floor: the construction of the sprung subfloor and the performance surface. The main goal of the sprung floor is to provide protection to the dancer. Providing dancers with enough ‘give’ as well as resistance.”

A sprung floor — it is a type of floating floor, and there are a range of types consisting of layers — provides a cushion effect, a crucial resilient buffer between dancers’ joints and a hard floor beneath.

Factors to Consider

There are many options and factors to consider. For example, what material is best for the types of dance your program teaches, or could teach in order to grow the program in the future? Also, is your structural subfloor sealed, and above, at, or below grade? That matters because an unsealed, below-grade slab can swell or warp your dance floor by drawing up moisture from the ground.

According to Harlequin Floors, “there are no differences in products for K–12, for colleges, or for large dance companies, for that matter.” That being said, the key, the supplier says, is “protecting all dancers of all levels and ages from injuries, providing surfaces to enhance dance.”

The most important part of a sprung floor? “What’s beneath it,” says supplier Ed O’Mara. “That’s what protects dancers from injuries.” He’s referring to that cushioning effect, which can be achieved in various ways. Those ways include neoprene pads or foam rubber.

Another way to think about it: using a hard surface instead of a resilient floor for dance is like jogging barefoot instead of in a running shoe.

As for performance surfaces, Marley — it’s a very common term for a discontinued brand of vinyl flooring, like saying “Xeroxing” instead ofcopying — and systems with woods or laminates vary in their manufacture, cost, aesthetics, portability, maintenance requirements, and traction or slickness. One size definitely doesn’t fit all, either figuratively or literally. Instead, thedance is in the details. At least in terms of the floor.

Back at Kent State, a reorganization had moved Shearer’s department into Kent State’s School of Theatre and Dance and, when a donation came through, facilities for performance were created and renovated on campus, including those three dance studios. In terms of the flooring, it took some planning, for sure.

“The major considerations, which are not unusual,” Shearer explains, “were size, resiliency, and Marley.” The program, after doing research, went with a Harlequin flooring system featuring a vinyl Marley-style surface. Educators are pleased, and considering the variety of uses for the studios, it’s a good thing.

Ask the Experts

Shearer makes another point of note: “Specialists really need to be involved in something like dance floors,” she says, “(and) we were very lucky to have university architects and project managers who were familiar with dance and who knew how to collaborate.”

Whatever the eventual choice, a performance floor is a major investment that may be with an institution for a long time. Take, for example, the dance program at Pennsylvania’s East Stroudsburg University, which replaced the flooring system of a 46-ft.-by-68-ft. studio in the 1990s. At that time, the program replaced a non-resilient wood-on-concrete floor with a layered resilient system.

East Stroudburg’s Dr. Elizabeth Gibbons explains that once the parquet floor was pulled up, “the subfloor was sanded to provide an even surface. Resilient high-density foam blocks, by StageStep of Philadelphia, were installed on a frame of 2-in. by 2-in. sleepers. Plywood decking was attached to the frame. Luan (a wood panelling) was attached to the plywood with countersunk screws.” A local contractor installed a “battleship lino” overlay by Forbo.

The program has been very pleased. Gibbons says, “Almost 20 years and everything is holding up well. Tap shoes, stilettos for Argentine tango; nothing seems to phase it. It is swept and mopped every evening, and buffed at the beginning of every semester.

“The floor tends to have a little less traction — slides and turns are great! — than a Marley, so there is a bit of a transition when we move from rehearsals in the studio to tech rehearsals on the portable Marley we use in the theatre. It’s a bit slick for the rare times we do pointe, and we can’t use rosin — because we also have modern and children’s classes on it — so sometimes we dampen the pointe shoes or ballet slippers with water.”

As Gibbons adds, “I was the only dance faculty at the time, and was a bit worried that, after I got the approval for the funding, the decision as to the type of floor would be mine alone, and that I’d have to live with it for a long time!”

All the more reason that, in terms of flooring at least, the dance is in the details. 

About the Author

Scott Berman is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.