The Silent Partner

June 21, 2007

Dancers and floors have an ambivalent relationship, but new technology is improving it.



A herd of thundering tappers stamps across the floor at Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City, California. Leaping, spinning, and sliding, they are euphoric as they pound out complex rhythms on a surface that gives with each landing, responding to each percussive shuffle-ball-change.


The floor is the unsung partner to dancers, and like many partnerships, it’s a complex relationship. Not long ago, dancers routinely performed on surfaces that left them aching. Retired L.A. ballet teacher Stanley Holden, now 77, spent 25 years as a member of The Royal Ballet. “At Covent Garden,” he recalls, “they put wood on top of cement. There was no resiliency. It was like dancing in the kitchen.”


Technological advances and a greater awareness of dancing’s physical impact on the body have made a dramatic difference in how today’s floors are manufactured, but demand evolved gradually. “Twenty years ago, people started wanting special hard surfaces for tap dancing, and padded floors that still were tough and could have heavy scenery wheeled over them,” recalls Robert Dagger, president of American Harlequin.


Today sprung floors are standard in most dance studios. The floor surface “floats” over a layer of synthetic material, like neoprene pads, with a bottom layer of plywood completing the sandwich. This provides elasticity over the entire section when a dancer lands, as well as yielding at the actual point of contact. Now-popular marley floors (which take their name from the company in England that first manufactured them) are made of flexible vinyl which can be rolled out—and up—for touring and have become a standard for stage flooring around the world. They are made without a factory finish, to prevent slipping, and traditionally come in black and gray. Many major companies tour with non-reflective versions.


Yet despite these advances, studios that offer different types of dance still face challenges. With 77,000 square- feet and 12 studios that needed flooring, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had many decisions to make before moving into its new $54 million building in Manhattan last year. According to Alaric Hahn, theater manager/director of facility, nine of the studios were equipped with medium-speed, gray marley floors with padding and custom-sprung wood sub-floors. These surfaces, he says, are suitable for multiple types of dance, except tap, which is taught on a wood floor with no smooth marley surface on top.


Rosco’s dance floor product manager, Tracey Cosgrove, recommends their Adagio floor for studios with multi-use spaces. “It’s designed to be hard enough to withstand tap, Irish step dance, and flamenco, but has slip-resistance for ballet, modern, and jazz,” she says of the vinyl floor, which is available in black or gray. Among the companies that dance on Rosco floors are Houston Ballet and Mark Morris Dance Group. Cosgrove acknowledges that dancers’ responses to floors are subjective. “I was visiting Houston Ballet,” she recalls, “and half the corps liked the floor and half didn’t, though they were all dancing on the same floor under the same conditions. It’s very personal.”


That ambivalence can stem as much from a dancer’s individual style as any floor characteristic. Jazz Tap Ensemble’s artistic director Lynn Dally agrees that everyone has likes and dislikes. “Gregory [Hines] traveled with a custom-made floor of oak or maple that was hinged and opened like a book. For me, a tongue and groove floor is better for sound than just panels of veneered wood on a frame. It’s like being inside a cello.” Jason Samuels Smith notes that tappers must perform on a variety of surfaces. “I sometimes bring my own,” he says. “The best is oak or maple, because it lasts the longest and has a great sound.”


For American Ballet Theatre principal Gillian Murphy, the ideal floor has a perfect balance between slippery and sticky, hard and soft. “If it’s too slippery,” she notes, “I’ll put more rosin on to take out the edge. If the floor’s too hard, you feel it more in jumping, but it doesn’t affect the performance as much as your physical instrument afterwards. I feel it in my legs.” Harlequin’s marketing manager, Claire Londress, says their floors have a slip-resistant surface that renders rosin, which can be messy, unnecessary. “Even if you have a hardwood floor, it’s a good idea to put slip-resistant vinyl over the top of it,” she notes. “It’s easier to maintain.”


Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet uses American Harlequin’s studio-grade marley floors, which have extra cushioning, and the company tours with a portable version as well. LINES also uses Harlequin Fiesta, with its oakstrip patterned hard surface, for percussive dance—flamenco, tap, and folklorico—“but it doesn’t work as well for ballet because it’s too slippery,” says Pam Hagen, a founding member of the company who is now its dance center director. With eight different types of floors in its inventory, Harlequin has installed floors for The Joffrey Ballet, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and American Ballet Theatre, among others.


For studios that lease space, permanent installation may not be ideal, and several manufacturers have made portability a feature. F. Randolph Swartz, a Philadelphia dance presenter and president of Stagestep, says his multi-purpose studio floors are designed to be both permanent and portable. With pre-assembled formats and “snap-and-go” transition pieces, the floors work well for touring companies, but also studio situations. “Products that are transportable allow for big change,” says Swartz, whose floors are used by Paul Taylor Dance Company, The Parsons Dance Company, and San Francisco Ballet. “We’ve developed a special kind of adhesive tape that holds the floor in place but you can peel it up if you need to, and it doesn’t leave any marks. There’s versatility in being able to move things around.” He points out that many dancers prefer to perform on the same type of floor as the one on which they have rehearsed.


As for floors of the future, both Cosgrove and Swartz agree that the newest technologies being developed are in sub-floors. “Today,” says Swartz, “there are many options, such as foam-backed flooring in different colors, widths, densities, and thicknesses. We’ve come a long way from battleship linoleum.”


For dancers, the floor will always be a source of potential triumph and frustration. Like all partnerships, there will be on and off days, but steady improvements are yielding an increasingly healthy—and happy—relationship.


Victoria Looseleaf is a freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to the
Los Angeles Times, Reuters, and La Opinión.