by Jeff Huang
Right after Ana posted the article on ear protection, I started paying more attention to my own listening habits to see whether my years on the dance floor had any adverse effects on my hearing. Sadly, after seeing an audiologist, I’ve found that yes, I do have hearing damage, and along with it many implications of not taking better care with myself earlier on. This blog article is a warning, as well as a reminder to all dancers, to take hearing safety seriously.
Salsa dancing at clubs can damage your hearing
In my years dancing across the country, one of the most common dancer complaints was that the music played in clubs and conventions is deafeningly loud. There were many nights when I stumbled home with both ears ringing, because I either danced too close to the monitors, or had people shouting into my ears, trying to overpower the music to have a conversation. I’ve always taken this as “normal”, especially since I was seeing people out dancing night after night right by the monitors without any hearing protection.
A few weeks after Ana’s post, I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, with a high-pitched ringing in my right ear. After a few moments trying to locate the source, I realized that the sound came from me. A quick Google search yielded the term “tinnitus” – a perception of sound when there is none present, commonly caused by repeated exposure to loud music. The realization that I have to live with this irreversible condition shocked me, and put me in a state of depression for weeks.
After a consultation with an audiologist, the diagnosis was that while my hearing is still within normal range, I do have noticeable hearing damage. If I continue to be exposed to loud music, soon I will need hearing aids. I walked out of the building feeling validated in my concerns, but sad at the same time, afraid of losing one of the great loves of my life – music. From that moment on I decided that I would do my best to promote hearing safety to my students, and make sure they would not be affected in the same way as I am (or worse).
One of the best defenses against overly-loud music is proper hearing protection. There are many types of earplugs, but I will mention three of the most common ones here:
These are widely used in the construction industry to protect workers operating heavy machinery. They are usually made of memory foam and available inexpensively at most drug stores. To use them, roll into a tight cylinder and press into ear canal. Once released, the earplug expands until it seals the canal, blocking the sound vibrations that could reach the eardrum. These earplugs are considered one-time use only, and are thrown away at the end of the day. However, they mostly drown out high-frequency noise, making sound muffled and distorted.
Musicians’ earplugs/Hi-fi earplugs
Musicians’ earplugs are reusable and contain tiny diaphragms to reduce low frequencies, together with absorbent or damping material for high frequencies. What makes musicians’ earplugs great for dancing is that they are designed to attenuate sound evenly across the audio band and thus minimize their effect on the user’s perception of bass and treble levels. To put it more plainly, these earplugs won’t distort the music you are hearing, making the dancing experience more enjoyable. Darnell, Ana, and I all use these earplugs during our salsa outings.
Custom earplugs are considered to be the most comfortable and effective earplugs available, but cost much more than the above two options. Custom earplugs are molded to fit your ear canal; an audiologist creates a mold that you to send to a manufacturer, who will then custom make your earplugs. (A number of these companies also create custom in-ear monitors, which are said to have amazing sound quality!) The usual price for having custom molds done is around $100, on top of which manufacturers typically charge around $120 to have earplugs created, making the whole process quite expensive.
Azúcar!’s (and Jeff’s) commitment to students on hearing protection
Throughout this whole hearing episode, one of my biggest concerns was my responsibility to my students, and how to protect them from future hearing damage. I will implement the following two policies in my future classes:
- I am bulk-ordering foam earplugs, and will carry spares with me when I go out dancing. If you want a pair, just ask!
- At the start of every semester, I will be taking orders for bulk-ordering musicians’ earplugs from the Earplug Superstore. The type I recommend is Etymotic ER-20. Typically these earplugs cost around $13, but if we order more than 9 at a time, they are about $11 each. I will not be making a profit off this, just want to provide earplugs to those who need and want them.
For those who read this far, thank you very much for hearing my message (groan). It’s high time we started talking about hearing safety on the dance floor.