An empty retail space in the Gallery Mall in Center City Philadelphia is hosting a month of dance. Every weekday in February, the public is invited to peer in on any one of twenty-four local dance companies practicing in a vacant, glassed-in store on the third floor.
Each dance troupe–ranging from flamenco to hip-hop to ballet – is scheduled to a three-hour block of time by Dance USA Philadelphia. Many have a regular weekly spot.
The point is twofold.
Dance USA Philadelphia (DanceUP) wants to introduce the public to the many styles of dance performance in the city. The store is at the top of an escalator, with floor-to-cieling windows facing the walkway. Speakers are placed in the walkway so passersby can hear the rhythm of music, footfalls, and rehearsal instructions.
DanceUP also wants to try out its new portable floor. A newly designed flooring system can be assembed in a space of any size–it is comprised of two-foot square sections, like tiles. But each section is “sprung”, meaning it’s designed to give a little bit with each step. For dancers, a sprung floor is the difference between a successful pas de deux and sprained hip.
One of the dance companies scheduled on Wednesdays is Pasion y Arte, a local flamenco troop directed by Elba Hevia y Vaca. Flamenco is a very percussive dance, and practitioners often pound small nails into the heels of their shoes to make each step louder.
Hevia y Vaca says many venues don’t like flamenco dancers because of the damage those shoes can do. She’s not only grateful to be able to perform on the portable floor, but surprised by how good it sounds.
“It’s on carpet – you’d think that would muffle the sound,” says Hevia v Vaca. “But the way it’s structured, it seems – this is the floor I want – wherever I go, this is what I want!”
Pasion y Arte normally rehearses in Hevia y Vaca garage at home, which is not only cramped but very cold, particularly during these sub-freezing winter months. The bright, spacious store is literally a breath of fresh air.
The same is true for olive Dance Theater, a hip-hop dance troop based in West Philadelphia. Director Jamie Merwin says they normally rehearse at night at the Community Education Center in Powelton Village.
“It’s a great de-facto home for us – but it’s nice to change the energy up, mix it up, bring new energy,” says Merwin, who loves the southern light streaming through the store windows overlooking 9th Street. “Sometimes the space brings new energy to us, too.”
Merwin has reservations about the surface of the floor, which is not optimal for hip-hop moves.
“It’s an anomaly – it’s doesn’t grip, and it doesn’t slide,” said Merwin. “That’s the challenge when you’re accomodating so many styles.”
The DanceUP project coordinator, Dara Schmoyer, says the fact that the floor is both sprung and portable means the organization will be able to present dance performances to parts of the city that don’t have proper dance facilities.
“Many people don’t know about dance is how hard it is to dance on hard surfaces,” saysd Schmoyer. “That’s why dance can’t be shown in public forums, like the center court of this mall. Because it’s a brick or cement floor. A sprung floor allows them to dance without injury to their feet and legs.”
Merwin says hip hop dancers are versatile, and can make any surface work if they have too.