Sprung floors and why your school should have them
By Theodore Bale
The Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs, IL, opened its doors in 1921, but to this day its original 6,000-square-foot “floating” maple dance floor still supports hundreds of eager dancers. Over the decades, musicians from Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra to the Village People graced the Willowbrook’s stage as patrons danced the night away. First known as Oh Henry Park (after the candy bar), the ballroom is testimony to the lure of a comfortable surface upon which to waltz and swing. Those who have danced on a properly sprung floor know that it not only helps prevent many serious injuries but can significantly prolong a dancer’s career as well.
In the 1980s, when I was taking ballet class almost daily, attending Nutcracker rehearsals in the evening and then moonlighting at night as a barefoot modern dancer, I learned one of the most immediate consequences of dancing on a concrete floor covered with a thin layer of linoleum: shin splints. In the clinical setting this condition is described as inflammation of the connective tissue around the tibia. In simpler terms, it means that the muscles of the lower leg have come away slightly from the shin bone after repeated jumping or running on too hard a surface. Shin splints are painful, to say the least, and can make rehearsals and performances (or even just climbing the stairs) unbearable. Today, even the studio where I practice yoga has a sprung floor, in this case covered with plushy cork, a popular “green” material. It’s heaven just to walk across the surface.
What exactly is a sprung floor? The term is related, indirectly, to the sprung floor’s distant cousin, the spring floor, still used in gymnastics, cheerleading, and martial arts. The spring floor uses metal coil springs, often finished with plywood and/or foam blocks, with a vinyl or carpet surface on top to prevent slipping. Spring floors are generally not suitable for dancers. A common complaint is that the springs eventually become noisy, like an old bedspring, as the coils wear over the years.
The problem with a spring floor, says Siegfried Gerstung, founder and owner of Gerstung International Sport Education, Inc., in Baltimore, is that dancers require not only resilience but shock absorbency as well. “They are two opposite phenomena,” said Gerstung. “One sends you up like a trampoline, gives you spring, and the other absorbs it, goes down and comes back up very slowly. A coil has only so many revolutions. If you hit it hard enough and the space between the wires is taken up, it bottoms out. We seem to have conquered that problem with our unique suspended floor, and that’s why a lot of our floors are called floating floors.” Gerstung designed his first sprung floor in 1942 and follows the latest research in dance and sports injury; he cited the work done by Dr. Lorna L. Francis at San Diego State University.
It appears, however, that the sprung floor might have preceded the spring floor. Claire Londress, marketing manager for American Harlequin, says that many years ago, George Balanchine came up with the idea of what is now called a “basket-weave” floor. This type of floor has two layers of 2 x 4 planks set every three feet from both sides. The cross points of the top layer are staggered 1 1/2 feet from those of the bottom layer so that each junction has air space below it. The two layers of planks are then covered with plywood and topped with either hardwood or plywood and vinyl. If this anecdote about Balanchine is true, he might have seen the basket-weave floor before he arrived in America. “I am from Germany,” said Gerstung, “and 60 years ago I learned from my father that there was such a thing as a basket-weave floor. The fancy ballet schools in Europe had these floors, but they were very expensive.”
Today the basket-weave floor is a wise investment for any dance studio owner, and various designs, such as the clip-and-lock system, allow the floors to be moved from one studio to another. The industry has changed over the years as more and more studio owners lease or rent their space instead of buying. “For obvious reasons, a sprung floor should be a number-one priority for a new studio,” says Londress, “but cost is definitely a factor. If [studio owners] don’t have enough money to come up with a professional-type sprung floor from a company that knows how to do it properly, at times they go with a homemade raised floor made with plywood over 1 x 4 boards. There are going to be lots of hard spots under the plywood, however, if the floor isn’t basket-weave. One layer of planks is better than just concrete and linoleum, but it isn’t perfect. If they can’t put in anything like that, they should at the least install a slip-resistant vinyl floor,” she adds.
Those who have danced on a properly sprung floor know that it not only helps prevent many serious injuries but can significantly prolong a dancer’s career as well.
Teachers of tap, flamenco, or Irish dancing, beware. Using only a padded slip-resistant floor will eliminate the important percussive aspects of those forms. The foam backing deadens the sound. Hardwood surfaces are not ideal for ballet and pointe, but hip-hop dancers, who wear sneakers or soft shoes, often prefer the stability of a hardwood floor.
How much does a sprung floor cost? Londress said that American Harlequin doesn’t advertise its floors at a per-square-foot cost because it prefers to do what she calls “ ‘consultative selling.’ If you were going to open a 20 x 40–foot studio in a strip mall, right there two of our floors would be eliminated, because they are permanent,” says Londress. “The only way to remove them is to destroy them. If you’re going to be in a rental or short-term lease situation, you need something like our sprung panels. They are 4 x 8 or 4 x 4 feet, and they interlock. We also have clip systems for places like houses of worship, where you can’t screw anything into the floor. It’s one unit, self-standing. You can pick those up and take them with you to another studio and add on to them.”
To give you an idea of American Harlequin’s prices for this article, however, Londress provided a quote using their Liberty sprung panels and Cascade performance surface. Each large panel (4 x 8 feet) is $250 and each small panel (4 x 4 feet) is $130. For an area that’s 20 x 40 feet, a studio owner would need 20 large panels and 10 small panels. Including the cost of enough Harlequin Cascade roll-out vinyl floor to cover the area, the cost without shipping is about $9,300. Londress adds that the Liberty panels are easily installed, needing only basic carpentry knowledge, and that most customers install the panels themselves.
Gerstung provides quotes by the square foot at his website, and says his product has two basic categories. First is what he calls the “air base.” As he explains, “If 50 people jump up and down on our air base simultaneously, it’s sort of like a basketball with a tiny hole in it—the air escapes only very slowly. Foam blocks support the floor, but the air that’s under the foam supports the people. You are literally jumping on air.” The second category is what goes on top of the air base: carpet, wood, or vinyl.
Some of Gerstung’s new products include inexpensive vinyl planks that are glued down like wood. Bamboo, a popular “green” choice, can be ordered in various grades of strength. He cautions studio owners to determine carefully all of the uses for the floor, however. Once he installed a surface where basketball would be played on occasion. The floor was so shock absorbent that the ball couldn’t bounce on it. “I realized it wasn’t the right design for those customers,” he says, “but I was also proud because it proved just how shock absorbent our flooring could be! We gave the customers another floor with heavier planking.”
Randy Swartz, president of Stagestep, Inc., says his company is offering more and more flooring to customers who lease facilities. “Back in the day, you had to just leave your $20,000 investment when you moved to a new studio,” he says. “Now we make floors that can be removed and recycled for use in another facility.” He describes Stagestep’s philosophy as threefold: safety first and foremost, performance, and value, which he defines as cost vs. use.
Swartz is particularly proud of a floor he installed at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia, also one of his international company’s bases. “We had to create a floating wood subfloor in a black-box theater,” he explained. “It had to isolate the sound to that room, allow the audience and performers to be arranged anywhere in the space, and it had to have weight-bearing capabilities but also be sprung.” The result is grand, if you’ve had the opportunity to experience it: multi-leveled and made of multi-tiered foam. It seems destined to last as long as the grand floor installed nearly a century ago at the Willowbrook Ballroom.