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Ballroom Dance

J M (Mike) Nelson
Phone: 612-810-0157

Ear Plugs for Dancers

Most dancers would do well to consider wearing ear plugs on a regular basis because most dance venues have music well in excess of 85 dB, the recognized point at which cumulative hearing damage begins. (See National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders,

Solid ear plugs close the airway in the ear canal and, in conjunction with their inherent physical texture, block sound waves from direct access to the ear drum. Unlike exterior ear muffs, as worn by many workers, they do not block sound from the skull bones surrounding the ear; bone can also conduct sound to the ear. Even so, ear plugs can block a considerable amount of sound. They perform best at higher frequencies; with solid plugs, sound appears muffled and less intelligible. Though their effectiveness depends on the fit and the conductivity of the material from which they are made, they typically reduce sound levels at the ear by 15 dB to perhaps 30 dB. Unfortunately, the attenuation of sound by solid plugs is not uniform, speech is not always intelligible, and music is not enjoyable.

Musicians Earplugs ( are similar to solid plugs, but they are molded to fit the ear canal and contain a small air channel with a patented attenuator that preserves the integrity of the ambient sound while reducing the sound pressure somewhat uniformly throughout most of the audible spectrum. Attenuators by Etymotic are available in 9 dB, 15 dB and 25 dB attenuation. There is also a generic version with nominally 20 dB attenuation. The latter comes in "designer colors" and appears to be marketed to youth who have sense enough to attempt to protect their hearing but not enough to avoid venues with excessive sound levels. (Though I have no data, my guess is that with some of the sound levels our youth encounter, even a blocked ear canal would not protect them completely from the massive doses of high sound pressure that they appear to enjoy.)

Estimating Environmental Noise. One does not need expensive equipment to determine whether or not cumulative hearing damage is likely. When noise levels are above 80 dB, people have to speak very loudly. When noise levels are between 85 and 90 dB, people have to shout. When noise levels are greater than 95 dB, people have to move close together to hear each other at all. (OSHA. Noise and Hearing Conservation,

Most dance venues seem to have unhealthy sound levels. Dance studios that suggest that I bring ear plugs if I consider their music too loud compromise their integrity. Dance studios promote dance as a healthy and enjoyable physical and mental activity; for them to impose sound beyond a healthy level seems incongruous. I can understand bars and night clubs being irresponsible; their regular customers are comparably irresponsible. I carry musicians plugs for those occasions when I venture into such places, but dance studios and dance clubs should know better and act more responsibly.

For those who wish to reduce potential damage, the 15 dB attenuator seems the most practical for ballroom dancers; even the worst studios rarely exceed 115 dB. Fortunately, we shouldn't need 25 dB attenuation, and the 9 dB attenuators differ primarily via disproportional attenuation in the lower portion of the audio spectrum. I, and most of my dance and musician friends who have musician's ear plugs, have found the 15 dB musician's ear plugs comfortable and the sound highly intelligible. At dances with excessive sound levels, which, unfortunately, predominate, they reduce the 85 - 100dB sound to 70 - 85 dB. The most noticeable contrast is that I still have to shout to be heard, and, though the sound, for me, is at a comfortable level, my fiends are shouting, too.

Warning! Even though the ER-20 generic attenuator is economical and effective, comes in "designer" colors, and would be sufficient for the occasional concert or bar, it does protrude from the ear. After having mine bumped, the pain was sufficient to justify the molded version that does not protrude, and is much more comfortable.

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