A Guide to Dance Floors - Part 1

Harlequin Floors presents you with a new series of articles by founder and CEO, Robert (Bob) K. Dagger, discussing some important issues to be considered when investing in a new dance floor. Whether it's a sprung floor system or simply a portable dance surface, the choice of floor is one of the greatest artistic and business decisions that most dance schools and companies will ever make. The right floor is also important for reasons of dancers' safety and long-term health. There are many aspects to consider and Bob examines these in detail to provide a useful guide to choosing the right floor for you. This, and A Gudie to Dance Floors Part 2 and Part 3, will provide you with all you need to know about choosing the right dance floor for you. 

The development of modern dance floors

Historically the choice was between a wooden floor and linoleum, until the advent of purpose-made vinyl floors during the 1970's. Although it may be tempting to opt for a wooden floor for purely aesthetic reasons, or a commercial grade vinyl for reasons of cost, today there are so many options specifically designed for dance that it makes sense to seriously consider these. Harlequin has led the way in developing and promoting the modern dance floor. Today the Harlequin brand is well known worldwide throughout the dance community, but less well known are the reasons why it is important to have a floor that has been developed for dancers and not for general purpose flooring or purely aesthetic reasons. So why not wooden floors? Hardwood sprung floors incur high initial construction costs and are in need of regular refurbishment every few years. They are also susceptible to temperature and humidity changes and can be difficult to clean regularly. A well-sealed hardwood sprung floor, properly maintained in this way, does look attractive and for ballroom dance is a suitable option, but conventional wooden floors still suffer from the inconsistencies of area and point elasticity, which are unavoidable due to their construction. Softwood on the other hand is too easily gouged and splinters, but could provide a suitable sub floor for a modern dance surface. Today's dance floors using vinyl surfaces offer consistency and are designed to provide the best response for dancers, reliably, for years of trouble free service.

The importance of choosing a floor designed for dance

When it comes to selecting a floor for a dance studio or performance stage, it is important to make the right choice. For most people involved in the world of dance it is something that they will be asked to do infrequently, so understanding the fundamental issues involved and where to turn for expert guidance could be invaluable in making an informed decision. The right floor, selected to suit your particular application and type of dance, will serve you well for many years to come, but a wrong choice could result in expensive refurbishment or even complete replacement within just a few years. An equally important consideration is to ensure the dance floor offers the quality needed for safe and confident performances, without concerns about falling or incurring injuries. It is important to note there are experts to help you to choose the right solution and in recent years new technologies have been applied, and materials developed, to create high performance floors for a broad spectrum of dance disciplines. 

Thinking about the application?

Finding your way starts with some fundamental decisions. How do you intend to use the floor? Will it be permanently installed in your building? At some stage will you need to remove the floor if you move, or does the landlord place restrictions on structural modifications? Or will it be used principally for touring? Then, for what style(s) of dance will the floor be used? And from a practical point of view, what type of sub-floor does your facility have?

We start by considering the needs of the performer. Arguably two of the most critical floor characteristics for a dancer are ‘traction’ and ‘spring.’ Traction is used to describe the degree of friction – just the right compromise between ‘blocking,’ where the foot is stopped dead – and on the other hand being so slippery that there is a risk of falling. This provides a good example where technology has been applied through the judicious use of plasticizers in the manufacturing process to create a vinyl surface that consistently gives the correct traction. Spring can be provided through the backing of the vinyl surface, as in the case of foam-backed loose lay floors, or through the underlying construction of panels on a series of foam pads or layers of foam and sprung boards. We usually refer to these as ‘semi-sprung’ and ‘sprung floors’ respectively. Consider for a moment the characteristics of an ideal sprung floor. We can identify two important elements. First ‘area elasticity,’ which describes flexion over a section or, put simply, how the floor ‘gives’ where a performer lands. This should not have excessive rebound, usually termed the ‘trampoline effect,’ neither should the ‘give’ unduly disturb neighboring performers. A satisfactorily shock dampened floor will also reduce the concern for the second measure known as ‘point elasticity’ that describes the compression of the floor at the point of contact.

A floor to suite your dance requirements

Dance styles will have different demands on the floor and this is why it is important to select a floor appropriate to the primary dance requirement. Contemporary dancers generally prefer a more springy floor, such as Harlequin’s Liberty™ panels, while classical ballet dancers choose Harlequin’s Activity® floor, or Harlequin’s WoodSpring™ system. However, percussive dance forms such as tap, Irish dancing and flamenco will put the floor under far greater test and can be particularly destructive to the older wooden floors that will soon start to mark and splinter. For these dance styles much tougher vinyls have been formulated, such as Harlequin Cascade™ that has been successfully used by ‘Riverdance’ for many years. But often the requirements are more diverse – a floor is needed to suit a variety of dance styles and there are a whole host of other practical issues. This is where expert guidance can prove invaluable in helping you select the floor best suited to your needs and budget.

Portable or permanent flooring?

One early consideration will be determined by the venue and particularly the response to the question as to whether the floor be laid on a temporary or permanent basis. If the dance venue is somewhere such as a school hall that is used on an occasional basis, then a loose-laid floor is indicated. Dance schools with dedicated premises may enjoy exclusive use of their spaces, but be restricted by clauses in tenancy or lease agreements that preclude making structural changes to the buildings, which will also rule out opting for a permanent floor. For a facility dedicated to dance, a permanent floor can be considered. The question of touring should also be considered and whether this is likely to be a frequent or only occasional requirement.

Should the floor be sprung?

With increasing awareness of health and safety legislation, it is always advisable to consider the possibility of a sprung floor, even if building construction and budget eventually preclude it. If an architect is responsible for the overall specification of a project, it is equally important that sprung floors for dance are clearly specified, since they have different characteristics to those used for indoor sports, and we shall return to this subject in a later article. But before turning to a consideration of permanent installations, we will consider the easiest solutions – roll out floors.

Roll out floors

Arguably the simplest solution is to use a roll out floor. These are available in a number of different formulations. Harlequin Reversible™ is a classic double-sided floor with an alternate color on the reverse. There are several color combinations to choose from, each quick to roll out and lay flat to provide a slip-resistant dance surface on either side.

Designed for extra strength and with a firm cushioned backing, which also helps to reduce noise, Harlequin Studio™ protects against hard floors, but is still light enough to be portable for touring.

Harlequin Freestyle™ is similar to Studio, but with a tough wear coat to resist scuffing, and works particularly well as a hip-hop performance surface.

Harlequin Cascade™ offers the ‘ideal’ surface for ballet, jazz, contemporary dance and also tap. Well suited to both temporary and permanent installation, it is extremely resistant to wear, but provides a perfect ‘feel’ – silky soft without any hint of being slippery.

Finally, Harlequin Allegro™ is the thickest roll-out dance floor available in the world. The quick and simple answer wherever a point-elastic floor is required to give a measure of instant protection against rock-hard sub-floors.

Key elements of a dance floor 

The two key elements are the building floor construction and the dance floor system to be laid on it. The sub-floor may be solid or suspended – anything from a quarry-tiled screed to a suspended wood floor with carpet. Sprung floors exist in the Harlequin range of products which may be laid directly over carpet or onto even smooth-tamped concrete.

Whether or not you decided upon a sprung sub-floor, you will need to specify the working surface of the dance floor: a most important component. While wood floors are still generally accepted for ballroom, folk and social dance, they have not been the preference of most artistic directors for over a quarter of a century. Wood in its various forms and finishes (for instance waxed, urethane-lacquered or merely sanded) is far too unpredictable a product for artistic directors. 

Roll-out dance floors are various constructions of vinyl sheet, differing critically from commercial vinyls in that they are formulated to give controlled slip resistance. 

A note of caution: it is estimated that over a third of commercial vinyl floors are classified as safety floors i.e. slip-resistant, especially in wet conditions, and it would be tempting to think of them as ‘safe’ for dance. But this slip-resistant property is variously achieved by the addition of coarse abrasive components and/or cork, frequently enhanced by a distinct surface emboss. All of these modifications are not suitable for dancers, who require a smooth and relatively soft surface to avoid abrasion and skin burns.

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