The Partner Beneath Your Feet

June 22, 2008

When Susan Glazer, director of the school of dance at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, needed floors for her new 10-studio building, she did a lot of research. She talked to international ballet companies with repertoires spanning several genres, met with architects to discuss optimal sub-flooring, and looked at options from every floormaker. But when it came time to choose, she threw research out the window and turned to the people who would be getting to know the floors the best—her 300 undergraduate dance majors.

Trained in modern dance, Glazer loved dancing on a wood floor herself, so she asked the department’s modern students to test wood as well as marley. To her surprise, they all preferred the latter. “I brought in four different kinds and had them test each barefoot, on pointe, and even sliding across. We took a poll and that’s how we decided on the marley that we have,” says Glazer. Only a dedicated tap studio ended up with wood floors.

Flooring can be a dance organization’s biggest long-term investment, since most floors have a long life span (though poor maintenance will shorten it). A school with the resources to dedicate a floor to each genre has more leeway than a smaller studio or company trying to find one to meet all needs. Today most ballet and modern dancers prefer marley surfaces, now made from everything from PVC to foam to fiberglass. (Marley, originally made from reversible vinyl, was created in the 1970s by British-based Marley Floors; its lightness, portability, and flexibility quickly made it popular.)

Manufacturers urge customers to think about sub-flooring and maintenance as much as surface. Finding the best sub-floor involves working with the building’s structure as well as the dancers’ safety needs. Some buildings’ floors are simply poured concrete—others have a layer of plywood or even built-in sub-floors. In the dance world, sprung floors are popular because the sub-floor’s layers of latticed wood ensure that a dancer’s feet never have only a single layer separating them from concrete. Thickness and resilience are all sub-flooring characteristics to weigh, and different genres of dance need more—or less—of each. For instance, give is at a premium for ballet dancers, while tappers get better sound from a less-flexible surface.

The Joffrey Ballet’s artistic director Ashley Wheater has kept an eye out for floors he particularly liked over the years. He’d been impressed by one at Dance Theatre of Harlem, but considered several others before choosing the same model for the Joffrey’s new building. A sprung wood model with basketweave latticework beneath a marley surface, it had “just the right degree of pliability,” he says. His dancers are looking forward to trying it. “You learn a lot about your body from the way you adapt to a floor,” says company member Valerie Robin.

A portable floor is more rule than the exception for many companies. Mihailo Djuric, artistic director of Festival Ballet Providence, has a custom-built sprung one that travels between the two local theaters where they perform. “We chose it to prevent injuries,” Djuric says. “A lot of stages have very hard floors.”

For a dance company that performs a range of choreography and tours frequently, portability and versatility are key, but artistic vision can play a role too. Michael Mao, the artistic director of his own six-person contemporary company, decided he wanted both a blue floor and a red one for specific works. He bought roll-up surfaces that now travel the world with Michael Mao Dance. When blue or red is not needed, the company lays a heavy black marley on top. “My dancers love traveling with their own floors because they know them,” says Mao. “They can base their spacing on the strips.”

As Robin notes, “The floor surface is its own realm and you have to explore it and figure it out.”

Don’t Get Floored

As if there weren’t enough to worry about during a performance, you have to deal with whatever floor you’re dancing on—good, bad, or ugly. But what if a floor is simply not made for your type of dance? Amy Brandt, a dancer with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, believes you adjust mentally. “You can’t do anything about it,” she says. “Be smart and feel out the floor before the show.”

Most ballet dancers choose their shoes according to the floor, using a more broken-in pointe shoe on a hard one, or a stiffer shoe on a softer one. And there are always the old tricks of putting water or Coca-Cola on pointe shoes, or scoring the bottom with a scraper, to create more friction on a slippery floor. But for dancing barefoot, “you almost want the floor to be slick because if you have sweaty feet they will stick,” says Brandt.

The Joffrey’s Valerie Robin feels that she can adjust to most floors fairly quickly. “You’re trained to adapt to form, style, and choreography,” she says, “so you usually adapt to floors without even realizing it. On a harder one, for instance, you have to center your body better, especially on pointe. You can’t fly up to piqué; you have to perch up to piqué. It’s just a different way of attacking things.”


Lindsay Cowan is a New York writer.




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