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Dance floor research

Emerging dance scientist and biomechanics expert Luke Hopper outlines his pioneering research investigating the effects of dance floors on dancer performance and injury.

Dance floors are an integral part of the dance environment, yet little information is available for the dance community that concerns how dance floors may affect dancer performance and injury. For the dedicated dancer striving to improve, injury can sadly be an all too common occurrence. By gaining knowledge concerning the relationship between dance floors and dancer performance and injury, the dance environment can be optimised in order to give dancers the best opportunities in their training.

It is common to hear dancers describe a floor with words like ‘sprung’, ‘hard’ or ‘stiff’. But what aspects of the floors are the dancers referring to when they make these statements? And do these elements of the floors really affect performance? These are vital research questions for dance research in the interests of dancer health.

Findings of the research

Did you know that the manufacturing standards in the UK that apply to dance floors are exactly the same standards that apply to basketball and volleyball courts? But unlike in many sports there is no governing body that directly regulates the floors used by dancers. Therefore it is easy to imagine that there are many inappropriate dance floors being used in the UK.

Various floors used by professional dancers in the UK have been tested and it was found that many of the floors did not meet the standards that apply to basketball and volleyball courts. In fact, some of the floors were almost as hard as concrete! It was only the floors that were specifically made for dance that complied to the standards for hardness. Therefore requiring dancers to perform on floors that are not dance specific may present with an unnecessary injury risk.

Using state of the art 3D motion analysis techniques, the movements of dancers were measured performing landings on different dance floors. The results showed that on harder surfaces (like that measured in the previous study), the stress at the dancers’ ankle joints increased. It was only when the floors complied with the standards that the ankle stress was decreased. The greatest ankle stress occurred less than a tenth of a second after the dancers had landed on the floor. Because these changes occurred within such a short time period this may mean that regardless of technical ability, dancers may not be able to reduce this ankle stress.

Professional and student dancers were then asked to give their opinions of the ‘feel’ of different floors. Dancers demonstrated the distinct ability to sense the differences of the different floors. This suggests that dancers do know what they’re talking about when it comes to dance floors. Further research is now being conducted investigating dancers’ opinions of the most important aspects of floors and how these factors may affect performance and injury.

Implications of the research
Injury occurrence is all too common in dance. Dancers will always push their bodies to the limit to get the most out of their training. It is therefore very important that safe dance environments are created by reducing any unnecessary injury risks.

This research has reported that dancers can be required to perform on substandard floors which were shown to affect ankle joint stress during dance movements. Dancers also demonstrated the distinct ability to sense changes in dance floor properties. Dance institutions are now able use this information and work with dancers in creating dance environments with the aims of helping dancers to dance better, stronger and for longer.

About the researcher
As an ex-dancer, Luke Hopper is well aware of the demands of dance training and the associated injury risks. Since finishing dance training, Luke has studied sport science at the University of Western Australia and is currently completing his PhD investigating the effects of dance floors on dancers. As the recipient of the IADMS student research award in both 2007 and 2009, Luke’s work has been internationally commended for the contribution of his research into dance injury mechanisms in conjunction with several international ballet companies. Luke is now employed as a lecturer of exercise and clinical biomechanics at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, Australia, and is continuing his research applying principles of sport science in the interests of improving dancer health and well being.

A UK version of our summary White Paper entitled 'The facts about sprung floors for dance' can be viewed here.

An interview with Dr Boni Rietveld
A sprung dance floor in a doctor’s office…surprising? Not really! Dr Boni Rietveld has equipped his office with a Harlequin Liberty sprung floor, so as not to worsen his patients’ injuries.

Dr Rietveld is an orthopedic surgeon at the Centre for Medicine, Dance and Music in The Hague, Netherlands. He is also Past President of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS).

Can we start by asking you briefly to explain the causes of injuries in professional dancers?
There is a distinction to make between injuries caused by the floor and those caused accidentally. As far as the former are concerned, it is evident that there is a cause and effect relationship between dancers’ injuries and the floor on which they perform. It’s logical, even if not always easy to prove. After all, dancers use their feet and legs to dance, rather than their hands!
With regards to accidental injuries, these are due to misfortune, fatigue, stress, etc. For example, when preparing for a new show, rehearsals take place at a sustained rate, then the choreographer wants one last rehearsal, the dancers are already physically exhausted and an accident happens. Some injuries can be caused by a bad landing from a jump, by the poor execution of a movement, in short, by misfortune!

Are there any other factors which play a part in the equation?
Often accidents or fractures are due to a rapid change in the type of floor. This happens frequently when dance companies are on tour or are performing in multipurpose venues. Ideally, tendons and ligaments should be allowed to adapt to the new floor. Cartilage and bone structure take an even longer time to adjust. In the end, it is as dangerous to dance on a hard floor as it is to constantly dance on different types of floor.

What type of injury is the most common?
According to the statistics I have been able to establish, 43% of complaints concern feet or ankles. To be more precise, I would say that tendonitis problems are the most frequent.
Tendonitis occurs in various places, but definitely more frequently in areas of great stress, notably at the level of the Achilles tendon, which is heavily used in ‘relevés sur demi pointes’ or when ‘en pointe’ jumping or when landing from a jump, etc.

Do these injuries also happen to teachers at private schools?
Certainly. I have numerous patients who come to me for a consultation, having taught for 20 years on a concrete or tiled floor. Unfortunately, when they get to me it is almost too late – the damage has been done. These patients often suffer from tendonitis, that is to say acute tendonitis, but equally from general wear and tear of the body, which translates into, for example, osteoarthritis.

Is there one type of dance that causes more injuries?
No, but injuries are different. For example, fractures of the big toe affect mostly classical dancers, due to dancing ‘en pointe’ but they also affect contemporary dancers. In contemporary dance, we find more injuries at the level of the achilles tendon.

What do you recommend?
Generally, the dancers should refuse to perform on unsuitable floors and demand the right to have a touring floor that has the same absorbent characteristics as the floor installed in their rehearsal studio.
In this way, we would certainly be able to prolong the career of dancers, who, at the moment, stop at 35 years of age, because their bodies no longer work properly, or because of injury. As far as private dance schools are concerned, they should be more careful in choosing their flooring.

How to choose the ideal dance floor?
In my opinion, a dance floor should be neither too supple nor too soft. A hard floor has the effect of causing serious return shock waves and can bring about injuries or premature wear in the cartilage. A soft floor causes the muscles, and therefore the tendons, to work harder. Additionally, a floor that is too soft can be dangerous for dancers because of the effect of surprise.
To illustrate my point: I invite anyone to jump on a tiled floor and then on a trampoline...the effect of surprise is guaranteed for all. I take the comparison to the extreme, but in some cases dancers have to face similar situations.