Ensure you make the right moves on the dance floor

The approach needed when creating a floor for a specialised use is often more ‘bespoke’ than it may seem. Steve Green of Harlequin Floors explains how dance floors differ from standard sports floors, and how correct design is critical for safety

Professional dancers can spend hours working in a dance studio; it is their place of work and should offer a safe environment fit for purpose. The floor is a dancer’s most important tool, not only is it the canvas for their creativity but it also gives them protection against slips, falls and long-term stress injuries.

Experienced dancers can judge a dance floor instinctively and if it feels right, they can effectively forget about the floor and concentrate on their artistic performance. A good floor instils confidence in dancers, a confidence that comes from a reassurance they are not going to slip and fall, that lifts can be performed safely, and that the floor will consistently return the right amount of energy absorption when landing following jumps.

When specifying floors for dance, architects should remember that dancers may not be the commissioning clients, but they are the crucial end users. Major dance companies understand this, which is why it is not uncommon for them to ask their dancers to ‘test’ floors before the final choice is made.

Correlating this subjective evaluation of floors by dancers with objective measurement criteria has prompted several research studies, particularly in the field of biomechanics.

One example was led by dance scientist and biomechanics expert Dr Luke Hopper, who has undertaken pioneering research investigating the effects of dance floors on dancer performance and injury. Dr Hopper explained that dance floors are an integral part of the dance environment, yet little information is available for the dance community on how dance floors may affect dancer performance and injury. For the dedicated dancer striving to improve, injury can sadly be an all too common occurrence.

Research has reported that dancers can be required to perform on substandard floors which were shown to affect ankle joint stress during dance movements. Dancers also demonstrated the distinct ability to sense changes in dance floors’ properties.

Dance institutions are now able to use this information and work with dancers in creating dance environments with the aims of helping dancers to dance better, stronger and for longer.

Another eminent researcher in this field is Dr Boni Retitled, orthopaedic surgeon and Past President of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS). Dr Rietveld observed that there is a distinction to make between injuries caused by the floor and those caused accidentally. As far as the former are concerned, it is evident that there is a cause and effect relationship between dancers’ injuries and the floor on which they perform. A dance floor should be neither too supple nor too soft. A hard floor has the effect of causing serious return shock waves and can bring about injuries or premature wear in the cartilage. A soft floor causes the muscles, and therefore the tendons, to work harder. Additionally, a floor that is too soft can be dangerous for dancers because of the effect of surprise.

One of the challenges for architects in specifying the correct floor for dance is that there is, at present, no published standard for dance floors. The closest, and most often used, approximation is European Standard EN14904, the standard for indoor surfaces for multi-use sports, but this fails to recognise the differing requirements of sports and of dance.

Some styles of dancing, such as ballet, require ‘traction’ from the floor to prevent slips during performance. But too much traction for a basketball player blocks movement, potentially resulting in twisted ankles or knees. On the other hand, the basketball player will need the 90 per cent ball bounce specified in EN14904, something irrelevant to the dancer.

As part of the testing regime for sports floors, an apparatus referred to as the ‘Berlin Athlete’ is used to measure force reduction, commonly referred to as shock absorption. However, the profile of this ‘representative athlete’ (based on a national level sprinter weighing approximately 70 kg which simulates the forces exerted on a sports floor) is probably not equally representative of young dancers.

The minimum floor deformation allowed in EN14904 is 2.3 mm, but tests on dance floors popular with dancers indicate higher levels up to around 4.5 mm are preferred, suggesting that in broad terms, dance floors are softer than sports floors. A related issue is that common methods of sports floor construction often result in floor deformation which makes the surface too inconsistent for dance.

And, unlike sportsmen who wear increasingly high-tech air-cushioned shoes to give grip and protect against impact injuries, the modest ballet shoe has barely changed in design since the mid-18th century. Made from soft leather, canvas or satin, the ballet shoe is very flexible, has a thin sole and offers little protection for the wearer.

So, the common assumption that a well-designed sports floor will suit the needs of dancers is simply not the case.

All sprung floors are not the same. Architects and flooring manufacturers both have an important role to play in ensuring that the right floor is specified to give dancers a safe environment in which to rehearse and perform.

There are of course many different styles of dance, some performed in hard shoes such as tap and Irish dancing, others in soft shoes such as ballet and some are performed barefoot as in much contemporary dance. A ballroom dancer will appreciate the slide and speed of a traditionally finished wooden surface, but a barefoot contemporary dancer will fear splinters from such a floor, and the tap dancer may be concerned about the damage their shoes may cause.

The best manufacturers will have a range of floors developed to meet the specific needs of particular styles of dance in conjunction with dancers themselves. When specifying a dance floor, the architect should look for an experienced manufacturer who works closely with the dance community to develop floors that performers want to dance on.

And this assurance of quality is not only applicable to elite dancers. It is equally important to provide amateur dancers in performing arts colleges, universities and schools with the same quality flooring. Aspiring dancers need protection too if they are to avoid their dance careers short.

Steve Green is group director of marketing at Harlequin Floors