City Informer: What Makes The Commodore Dance Floor So Bouncy?

I was a tween girl in the horsiest of decades, the ’90s—oh, those heady Saddle Club days—so yes, I’ve met a horse or two. Though, really, I identified less as a “horse girl” and more like a “tags-along-with-her-cousins-on-family-ranch-vacations-to-wait-for-riding-sign-ups-because-they-always-brought-mini-bagels-to-the-barn-for-breakfast-and-I-really-liked-mini-bagels girl.” (Are they more delicious than regular-sized bagels? That’s an article for another time.)

How would I describe these majestic creatures (horses, not bagels)? Large and in charge. Also constantly defecating, which took some of the charm out of the experience (both horseback riding and bagel-eating). I would not describe them, however, as “nature’s trampolines,” but I guess architect H.H. Gillingham saw something I didn’t when he looked at them, which is why he went on to design the city’s most iconic dance floor and I didn’t (to my mother’s great disappointment).

That’s right: when Gillingham built the Commodore Ballroom (née the Commodore Cabaret) back in 1929, he took his cue from the equine set and layered the shiplap dance floor atop a bed of 2-by-3 boards and tires stuffed with horsehair—ah yes, that famously bouncy, bouncy horsehair—to absorb dancers’ impact and add a little spring to one’s step. This innovative new building technique had been used at only a few venues elsewhere in the world, and it thrilled Vancouver’s partygoers for upward of four months, until the venue abruptly closed for Great Depression–related reasons.

Thankfully, the Commodore opened back up in November 1930 as a dinner-and-dancing venue, inspiring the famous expression, “I was so hungry, I could dance on a horse,” and though the entertainment offerings evolved over the decades—with everyone from Count Basie to Snoop Dogg making appearances throughout the years to inspire some rowdy bouncing—the famous sprung dance floor remained the building’s mane claim to fame.

Illustration: Byron Eggenscwhiler

Of course, the best-laid floors of horse and men often go awry: when Ani DiFranco narrowly avoided being pummelled by a wobbly mic stand in the mid-’90s, it was discovered that the stage beams and floor were beginning to crack and warp, and the historic dance floor would need to be renovated. Was it the chilling warning of the ghosts of the horses whose hair was in the floors, finally rising up to buck off their oppressors? I don’t know, because, as I mentioned, I was elbow-deep in mini-bagels at the time. But haunted by hairless horses or not, in January 1996, the floorboards were cut up and sold off to raise money for BC Children’s Hospital, and attention was turned by new ownership to a $3.5-million renovation that kept the Commodore’s doors (commodoors?) closed for three years.

When it came to repairing the floor, believe it or not, there weren’t too many horse-hair-tire-stuffers left in town—I blame the Chrétien economy—so alternative materials had to be sourced. No horses were harmed in the making of today’s still-bouncy floor, thanks to a design that layers plywood, drywall, cork and foam rubber. It may still be the funnest, springiest venue in town (at least until I achieve my dream of opening my late-night ’80s-themed bagel bakery and nightclub called “Tears for Shmears”), but it’s official: the Commodore isn’t horsing around anymore.