On 17th February 2010 I posted the following on my Facebook status:
Why does it seem dance studios are becoming more selective than inclusive of dance styles? Why is it so difficult to find affordable studio space for tap dance in London? Sprung WOODEN floors please, not vinyl/marley etc. Grrrrr!
Over the next day I received a number of comments from tap dance friends and associates from different cities around the world who have the same issue. Whilst this post is focused on floors specific for tap dance it may also apply to other percussive dance styles.
The issue is that many new/rennovated dance studios lean towards vinyl-type covered dance floors which are not suitable for tap dance. And where they install sprung, wooden floors they are not durable for outdoor shoe wear let alone the battering of metal-plated shoes!
As part of my Trailblazer project I’m conducting research into acquiring a decent, portable, tap dance floor to practice on and for performances. This is partly because I’ve had to turn down gigs due to lack of suitable floor to tap on.
Requirements for tap dance floor
The National Tap Ensemble, an American tap dance company, had provided a useful link on their website entitled Appropriate Flooring For Tap Dance (link no longer available).
As they had stated on their website, the minimum standards required for tap dance floors are:
1 – A TOP LAYER MADE OF HARD WOOD – e.g. oak or maple but not painted, varnished or waxed
2 – HIGH RESILIENCY – i.e. sprung floor (a.k.a. floating or suspended floor)
3 – RESONANCE – at least two inches or five centimeters underneath the top layer of the floor
4 – A CRACK-FREE SURFACE – i.e. no space between boards or any nails, tape or sticky tape residue etc
As well as an exhaustive list on surfaces that shouldn’t be tap danced on they also state:
TAP DANCE IN PARTICULAR, SHOULD NEVER BE STUDIED, PRACTICED OR PERFORMED/TAUGHT ON BALLET/MODERN/JAZZ FLOORS
This is because the needs and requirements of ballet/jazz/modern flooring are DRASTICALLY different from those of tap/clogging/flamenco and all other percussive dance traditions (Ibid.) So dance floors advertised as being suitable for all styles are dance are merely a marketing strategy that does not reflect the differing requirements for dance styles. Dance professionals need to be aware of their responsibilities to themselves and students to make informed decisions about different dance floors for different dance styles.
People who tap dance on unsuitable floors may not experience any immediate repercussions beyond the poor resonance of taps, but are at high risk from micro-injuries to their joints. These are small injuries that can build up to major issues over time. I recently caught up with a tap acquaintance who had to retire from tap dancing due to arthritis caused by many years of dancing on “bad” floors, mainly flooring that was too hard. Although the tap dancer used a wood surface it was not sprung and was often laid on very hard surfaces such as marble and concrete. He indicated that he felt pressured to dance on “bad” floors in order to further his career, but now regrets that he hadn’t been more aware of the consequences since he would have been more selective about what surfaces to dance on. He has lived many years in pain, at first dancing through it (not recommended), but it built up to a point where it became so severe it limited his ability to walk. After finally consulting a doctor, the condition of his joints were found to be very serious and surgery was needed to correct some of the damage.
The Dance Floor “Specialists”
So why are many dance studios installing floors that exclude persussive dance styles? I suspect it’s partly due to demand as well as cost. Classic dance halls often had sprung, hardwood floors (good for tap dance, ballroom styles and classic jazz dance style). When cheaper materials became more readily available floor specialists moved away from the old flooring systems which were more expensive to build and maintain.
These days many dance floor specialists provide sprung floor systems that require a vinyl-type layer on top, or soft wood surfaces, all of which are geared towards ballet and contemporary. They are also cheaper to maintain. Percussive dance – tap, flamenco, clogging etc – are not prominent styles in typical dance studios so are not catered for. Hence why there is a lack of dance studio spaces for tap dance.
Many tap dance professionals, companies and enthusiasts find that the only way to ensure they have suitable flooring is build it themselves. Obviously this can be considerably expensive since it often requires a bespoke design and specific materials (real wood is expensive in comparison to soft wood, plywood or masonite). Maple and oak (particularly white oak) seem to be top hardwood choices amongst tap professionals. Portable stages are required for touring companies since they cannot rely on venues having suitable floors to dance on. Tap dance companies can spend thousands of American dollars to ensure they have a well-built tap dance floor, a luxury many individuals, or small companies cannot afford.
Tap dance at large dance events, festivals etc
Dance events aimed at being inclusive of styles often have floors unsuitable to tap dance on. Besides the organisers typically being ignorant towards the requirements of percussive styles, the companies that supply “specialist dance floors” are also just as unknowledgable. Tap dance is often an after-thought in the programming, by which stage the technical requirements cannot be met. Plus even if tap dancers could supply their own floor at dance events it’s not practical if set up time is needed, since each act typically has only 5-15min on stage.
Towards a portable tap dance floor
Whether an occasional or regular tap dancer, any tap dance floor should be more than a piece of MDF board or plywood since these are not hard wood and do not provide a sprung floor system. Practicing on such surface will lead to injuries.
The tap floor should pass the resiliency test – You can easily test this by jumping on the floor or stage while wearing hard soled shoes (note that sneakers won’t work as they will absorb shock and give you the false impression that the floor is resilient) (www.usatap.org/aft.htm, 2010)
At dance fairs, I’ve approached dance floor specialist companies for information on their products suitable for tap floors. I’ve also searched online for floors and those that look as if they have potential are often based in the USA (shipping costs to UK could be quite high).
1) “Tap tiles”, a vinyl surface even though it’s recommended for tap dance practice. The individual tiles don’t provide a sprung floor system
2) Roll out wooden mat
Although this provides a wood surface it does not specify what type of wood (only that it has a Maple like finish) and would require a sprung subfloor.
The follow up to this post can be read on Portable Tap Dance Floor