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Special Floors for Dancing
by Dr. Harbans Nakra

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Location: Montreal, Quebec

PostPost title: Special Floors for Dancing
Posted: Sun 18 Jan, 2004 7:24 am
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Special Floors for Dancing
(First published in SRUTI of Chennai, India, issue 123, December 1994)
Dr. Harbans Nakra

A much neglected aspect of Indian dance training and of its performance is the floor on which they are carried out. Notions of cushioned or sprung floors have not widely pervaded the dance milieu in India. A brief description of one such floor is given and some of the concerns that led to their development are raised in this article in the hope of initiating a discussion of the subject in the Indian dance context.

Intensity and risk of injury
These days in the West, injuries to participants in sports activities or in dance are not uncommon. Today’s athletes and artists expose themselves to increasing risks of injury as they continuously push the limits of their physical capacities in pursuit of excellence. Some qualify this quest as legitimate and allow for the inevitability of some injury. Others shudder when they see what is going on and call it abuse of the body. Whatever be one’s philosophical bent, there is no denying the fact that an increase in the intensity of the physical activity leads to an increase in the risk of injury. Depending on one’s level of involvement, the risk could be serious (such as at the professional level) or minor as in children’s activities.

The relationship between risk and intensity can be graphically visualized as shown in Figure-1. As the level of intensity increases, the risk of injury mounts, very gently at first and then, beyond a threshold, very rapidly. This threshold represents the maximum capability limit (MCL) of the individual. Most individuals will work at levels just below the MCL, at what might be called the working threshold level (WTL), allowing for a certain safety margin. With proper training one can push back the MCL while at the same time, precautions and the use of safety gear could allow one to work with a smaller safety margin. One way or another, the individual WTL for a particular activity could be pushed back, thereby permitting an increase in the intensity of the performance without an accompanying increase in the risk.

One example in the world of sports, among many that come to mind, is the considerable abatement of risk that has been achieved in the face of higher speeds in cycle racing, by the use of safety helmets. Pads, helmets and other protective devices have become standard accessories of an athlete’s equipment.

The desire for an increased intensity in the athlete’s actions is motivated by two factors. On the one hand, there is the challenge of achieving progressively higher personal goals and, on the other hand, there is the desire to sharpen the competitive edge so that one can achieve the glory of being the best. Both of these factors contribute to a more exhilarating experience for the spectators, resulting in an increase in the public value of the sport. This in turn enhances the worth of the athlete, which pushes him further into an even higher level of intensity.

Similarly, in the field of dance, greater intensity leads to a more aesthetic perception, which again leads to an increase in the value of the activity and consequent worth of the artist.

Risk of injury in Bharata Natya
In the case of Bharata Natya, one might reasonably assume that the development of artistic capabilities in the field of abhinaya involving hand gestures and facial expressions does not normally involve any physical risks and therefore the artist can inject into the practice all the intensity he or she is capable of. However, when it comes to pure dance, caution would certainly be advisable, and indeed it comes naturally.

The physical activities in Bharata Natya that are of most concern from this point of view are the jumps and the stamping of the feet on the floor. Some questions that arise are discussed below.

    What is the consequence of the foot impact travelling through the bone structure to the upper part of the body? For certain postures and especially on concrete floors, dancers can feel the impact shock all the way up in the head. Does this pose any risk of permanent physical damage to any organ or to the bone structure, either for children or for adults? How does this affect the training programme?

With regard to other similar activities, the general belief in the West is that indeed the impact of the foot on a hard surface poses a risk of injury, and for this reason, elaborate safety procedures have been established. For outdoor activities, like jogging for example, this has resulted in the special design of shock absorbing footwear. In the case of indoor activities, the requirements relating to footwear can be relaxed because the floor can be designed to absorb some of the impact. In a heavy stress activity, such as basketball, both the shoes and the floor are designed to share the impact, whereas in ballet the reliance is mostly on having a suitable floor.

In Indian dance, in most cases, no precautions are generally taken and very often the dancing is done on concrete or other hard floors. One may then legitimately ask whether the possible discomfort inevitably leads to a lowering of the intensity and even a complete avoidance of that aspect of the dance.

An examination of current practice seems to suggest that dancers tend to favour the use of the full foot surface, especially when stamping, producing the commonly heard clap sound as the foot hits the floor. In this practice a large force is generated at the heel and this travels up directly through the bone structure. On the other hand, if the dancer would favour the front part of the foot when stamping, the upward transmission of the force would, at least partially, be through the muscles of the ankle and of the calf, thereby attenuating the impact.

In the case of jumps, fortunately most practitioners do land on the front of the foot, but for those who allow the heel to take a major part of the impact, the effect on the body would be even more pronounced. Dancers and dance teachers need to give some thought to how these aspects are taken into consideration in their routine practice.

    Does the foot impact represent an added risk for the fallen arch syndrome or the worsening of an existing flat-foot condition?

In this connection one might look at the foot position of the Kathakali dancers where the impact points are kept to the outer edges. Perhaps this is prescribed in this style for reasons other than aesthetical.

    Constant stamping with bare feet represents a trauma for the skin of the soles and as a consequence there is an adaptive thickening of it. In one related incident, a local (Montreal) doctor speculated that this perhaps weakens the immunity of the part of the skin against infections. The bare foot condition itself causes a more than ordinary exposure to infection. When considered together, could these two factors lead to a significant risk of infection?

The cushioned floor
As indicated above, the cushioned floor is one way of attenuating the impact of the foot stamping on the floor and is highly recommended for all dance studios. Renting professional studio space, the dancers of the Kala Bharati school in Montreal have been using such floors for many years, but whenever they have had to practice on a hard (uncushioned floor), they have immediately felt the discomfort. Recently a cushioned floor was installed for their exclusive use and this is briefly described below.

The cross-section of the floor is shown in Figure-2. A composite, three-layered wooden floor is laid on a flat concrete surface. The first layer of the floor is made-up of a large number of rubber-like cushion pads, each approximately 2-1/2” x 1-1/2” x 3/8”. These strong and highly resilient pads are attached to ¾” plywood sheets, approximately one pad per square foot. This cushioned plywood floor is then laid on the concrete surface and this plywood floor is covered by a 3/8” thick hardwood floor made-up of 2-1/2” wide strips, semi-dovetailed and nailed or (power stapled) to the plywood. The nails go into the side edge of the hardwood strips so that they are not seen or felt at the surface. The floor is then polished and coated with a polythene liquid to give a matted (non-reflective), non-slip finish.

The composite wooden floor rests by its own weight on the concrete and is not attached in any way to the walls. In fact a quarter-inch gap all around is required to allow the air to flow and thus prevent the accumulation of moisture underneath.

The hardwood strips serve to bind the plywood sheets into one single unit. It is therefore necessary to orient these at 45 degrees to the edges of the plywood sheets. Considering that the lines on the floor should be preferably aligned to one or the other of the walls, it becomes necessary to install the plywood sheets at 45 degrees to the walls.

The Dance Floor
In addition to having a cushioned floor to absorb the shocks, it is also important to ensure that the surface is slip-resistant, free from uneven edges and is not splintered. Although, in general, the life of a hardwood floor is measured in terms of decades, the surface itself cannot escape deterioration from normal use and requires constant maintenance. The demands of dancers, especially of the barefoot variety, are not always adequately met and consequently the use of a special dance floor has become quite common.

This floor is made up of vinyl type material, approximately 1/8” thick, laid over the wooden floor. It provides an ideal dancing surface, smooth and slip-resistant and is at the same time resilient enough to soften the trauma experienced by the foot skin. It normally comes in rolls approximately 5’ wide and different sections are held together and to the wooden floor by tape.

While the dancers continue to strive for excellence, some questions present themselves for the attention of all those concerned with their well being, including the medical research community. Notably:

    * Is stamping of the foot a risk for the fallen arch syndrome?
    * Does the adaptive thickening of the skin of the sole decrease its immunity to infections?

Based on the experience in the West, one can generally conclude that the “cushioned” floor is strongly recommended; indeed it should be considered essential for practices. The “dance floor” could be regarded as a desirable option, particularly so for professional performances.

The writer is conscious of the significant financial burden such facilities would impose on a community already struggling to survive, but perhaps one could look upon this as an investment. If such provisions improve the quality of the dance then perhaps the investment will pay rich dividends, not only for the dancer but also for those who promote the art and ultimately for the art itself.
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PostPost title: My Experience With Sprung Floors
Posted: Tue 01 Feb, 2005 12:15 pm
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Hello all,

I would first like to say thank you to Dr. Harbans Nakra (known to us as our dear Bans Uncle) for writing an article stressing the importance of a good dance floor and sharing it with dancers even in India.

Having been with Kala Bharati for almost 25 years now, I speak from experience when I say that one of the most important components of a good rehearsal, aside from the the state of the dancer's body, is the floor on which the dancer is rehearsing. Being a very rigourous form of dance, this is even more crucial a factor for Bharata Natya dancers.
I can definitely confirm the notion put forth that the ability of a dancer to perform well and at a level of his or her 'best' depends on the floor on which one is stamping. At Kala Bharati I would even say we were spoiled as compared to many others, by Mamata Aunty who always made sure the floor was suitable for dancing even if it we were simply participants in a performance and not necessarily staging our own big production. She insisted that we take good care of our body (still does) and made it a point to make several visits to the location if necessary, to check out the floor on which we were to put 'our best foot forward'.

I remember very fondly our first visit as a 'troupe' to India. We were invited to perform at a most prestigious hall in New Delhi (FICCI auditorium) and even there, after seeing us struggle to move about on a very slippery stage, Aunty put her foot down and soon the problem was solved...a team of 'uncles' began to spray soda (limca) all over the stage!
All this to show that if one has taken the time to treat a performance seriously by having hours of rehearsal to bring out one's best, the floor must be suitable so that the entire production is not compromised.

I have had many other experiences with both good and bad dance floors and I can honestly say when the body is used to dancing in a space like 'Le Niketan' which Mamata Aunty and Bans Uncle had created exclusively for us many years ago, it rebels on a floor which is less than adequate and the dancers' movements are restricted. I know that when I have had to dance on a floor which is not sprung, my lower body is not as relaxed and the mind has to be much more engaged in the execution of the movements to ensure that the quality of dance is not compromised. This leads to dancing below the MCL, closer to the WTL as Bans Uncle has described in his article. Of course one's dance 'technique' plays a major role in movement execution in terms of strength and precision in Bharata Natya, another aspect which Mamata Aunty puts great emphasis on. For instance the sound of a foot 'slapping' on the floor, which is less pleasing and rather distracting a sound when contrasted with the proper stamping of the foot, resulting from a correct and even distribution of the body weight. When bending and preparing to lift the leg there is a conscious placement of the foot on the floor without allowing the body to loosely throw its weight around. Even in the lifting of the leg, it is a lift from the knee and not from the thigh so that when the foot reaches the floor it does so mindfully and with control. It is then the entire foot with an even distribution of balance that hits the floor producing a firm sound rather than the inner part of the foot hitting the floor, which can also cause a dancer to be off-beat.

Another point to be made here which re-affirms the importance of a good dance floor, is that being able to practise consistently on a good floor allows the dancer to know and reach his or her potential so that this experience is 'remembered' by the body. Therefore, even if the body is put in a situation to perform on a less than suitable floor, it is able to push itself to reach that level of dance, recognizing if it falls short of its potential. In other words, the body is able to adjust to the 'bad floor' more easily and quickly, having already performed at its MCL (or at least close to it) so that the quality of dance is not highly compromised.
This of course is just what I can share from experience but I would love to hear from other dancers as well who have had the chance to experience dancing on sprung and non-sprung floors or at least a realtively better 'bad dance floor'!

I will like to conclude with a very pleasant surprise I recently had when I visited my cousin in Toronto who is a Bharata Natya dancer as well. I have known her to practise on non-sprung, often concrete floors but when I visited the dance school which had recently changed locations, her guru was quite proud to announce that she had now installed sprung floors for her dancers. I was delighted to see the excitement in her eyes as she shared this with me and I immediately thought to myself how fortunate am I to have had this luxury for so many years. This is all thanks to Mamata Aunty and Bans Uncle and all I can say is that I hope other bharata Natya dancers in Montreal equally have a chance to be exposed to what I feel is a very crucial aspect of any Bharata Natya training.

thank you,
Jaya Smile
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