Making a Safe Space for Dance

K–12 teachers go to the mat for proper floors.

West Briar Middle School students now dance on a
resilient surface, thanks to their teacher Lynn Reynolds.

Teaching dance in a K–12 setting often means holding classes in hallways or cafeterias, sharing space with other student groups or dealing with ceilings that are too low for jumps. Even dedicated studio spaces often lack the kind of shock-absorbing floors that help prevent chronic injury.

“From tile flooring to marley laid on concrete, we’ve danced on it,” says Teresa L. Baker, who now has a wood sprung floor in her Beaufort High School studio in South Carolina. “There are always complaints of pain in the feet and legs after dancing on a floor not designed for dance.”

So, as a public school dance educator, what can you do? DT spoke with Baker and two other teachers who successfully secured funding for proper floors.

When Lynn C. Reynolds, chair of the dance department at West Briar Middle School in Houston, walked into her new 20' x 40' dance room just two weeks before classes started, she found tile flooring on top of a concrete flat and no mirrors. The principal did purchase mirrors before classes started, “but we danced on that cement flat for that entire first year,” she says, adding that she taught four 90-minute classes daily for students in grades six to eight. “I would go home aching every single day.”

She did what she could to help protect her students from injury, many of whom also studied several hours a week at local dance studios. “You cannot have your students doing what we’re used to doing in a regular studio,” she says. “I tried to adapt movement, and I didn’t have them go across the floor with leaps or even turns for an extended period.”

After that school year, Reynolds talked to the principal, and when he heard about the physical stresses the tile/cement floor was causing, he agreed to fund a proper floor.

But getting the backing or funds isn’t always that easy. Baker suggests urging parents and students to be vocal advocates. “Keep track of injuries and document floor issues,” she says. “Go to your board of education and provide research on proper flooring for all physical activities.”

Once Reynolds received financial clearance, she contacted a local contractor, who designed and built a modified floating floor during the summer. First he laid down plywood sheets, followed by 4' x 4', 1/2"-thick carpet pads. Next came a lattice-work of 8' strips of 1" x 4" wood, and another layer of plywood, topped with 1/8" vinyl flooring (with a wood appearance). Around the edges, he tacked 3/4" rounds to keep everything secure. “It cost a little under $6,000, and everything was bought at the hardware store,” Reynolds says. “It took two people and 50 hours of work.”

Ten years later and with 150-plus students each year, Reynolds’ floor is still in good shape. She allows the custodians to mop it occasionally, and to dry-mop it regularly.

Baker says it’s imperative to have district support when it comes to proper maintenance. “How your wood floor is finished should be determined by the dance program,” she says, adding that her floor was recently refinished, but the company hired was prepared to apply a polyurethane finish—like a gym floor—which would have made it quite sticky. “After many phone calls, we finally came to an agreement, and the company put a very watered-down polyurethane finish on the floor. They then buffed it out and left us with a smooth matte finish that provides protection for the floor, yet the ability to move without sticking to it.”

It took several years of petitioning for South Carolina high school dance teacher Melissa McCrary to finally get a suitable studio floor. “I have been told for the past four years that it will be in the budget for ‘next year,’” she says. “It was finally in the budget for this school year, but no one told us about it until December.” At press time they were getting bids from vendors, and she’s already prepared to protect her district’s investment: “I will not be allowing anyone else to be in the room without my supervision. I will, at any cost, protect the new floor after they spend that much money on the purchase and installation.” DT

Hannah Maria Hayes is a NYC freelance writer with an MA in dance education, American Ballet Theatre pedagogy emphasis, from New York University.

What Exactly Does “Adequate” Mean?

Requesting funds for a sprung floor or other dance space necessities from your principal or school board? Guidelines from the National Association of Schools of Dance can help support your request. NASD defines adequate space as meeting or exceeding the following specifications:

• Unobstructed space, providing a minimum of 2,400 square feet overall, and providing a minimum of 100 square feet per dancer.

• Ceiling height of at least 15 feet.

• Floors with the necessary resilience for dance (i.e., sprung or floating floor) and with surfacing appropriate to the nature of the dance activity.

• Adequate fenestration, lighting, acoustical ambiance and ventilation.

• Adequate mirrors and barres.

• Adequate locker rooms, showers, drinking fountains, restrooms and access to first aid.

nasd.arts-accredit.org

Dance Floor Manufacturers

Entertainment Flooring Systems, flooradvice.com

Gerstung International, gerstung.com

Harlequin Floors, harlequinfloors.com

O’Mara Sprung Floors, sprungfloors.com

Rosco, roscodancefloors.com

Stagestep, stagestep.com

Photo by Curtis Mack Polk, courtesy of West Briar Middle School

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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