“Five, six, seven, eight…”
To this day, those four words still make me rush to first position with my back straight, chin up, and core clenched. As many people – even those with short-lived dance careers – can identify, these four words prepare dancers to start a routine at the beat of the instructor’s voice.
“FIVE – SIX – thump – SEVEN – thump thump – EIGHT – THUD”
Unfortunately, this count-off is often more representative of typical dance studios, where instructors are forced to shout above the music and thumps from dancers upstairs. This was certainly the case at my childhood dance studio, where I spent most evenings after school learning various styles of dance. As a kid, I assumed that this level of constant disruption was an inevitable characteristic of vertically stacked dance studios. The poor acoustical conditions certainly never could have driven me away from my beloved studio; but as an acoustician, I now understand that it doesn’t have to be this way.
A dance studio is a home away from home – a sacred space for people of all ages to explore and express their minds and bodies through movement. Particularly during times of teenage tumult, my dance studio provided a place for me to embrace my individuality, while being part of a loving and accepting community. A dance studio is made great, first and foremost, by the people inside of it; but a great facility has the power to inspire talent to learn, teach, and perform their very best.
To succeed, these facilities should be great not just architecturally and functionally, but also acoustically. A dance studio certainly doesn’t have the same acoustical requirements as a concert hall or theater; but there are a couple of basic design goals that can transform these often cacophonous spaces into well-controlled ones that foster maximum creativity and expression:
> High speech intelligibility, so that dancers can hear and understand each other and their instructors easily, and
> Support and clarity of music, so that dancers can easily hear and feel the beat.
Two basic acoustical design strategies are required to achieve these goals:
> Minimize extraneous noise. This includes sounds from adjacent spaces (dance studios, warm-up areas, corridors, etc.) and background noise from the HVAC system. These design elements are especially important to get right the first time in a new construction project, because they are often very expensive and complicated to fix later.
> Select sound absorptive room finishes. In dance studios, it is important that these finishes are durable and impact-resistant, and to the extent possible, located out of arm’s (or leg’s) reach.
Easier said than done! There are a few common hurdles to achieving these goals. Dancers can impart significant impact energy into the structure of the building each time they touch the floor. The amount of impact energy depends on the style of dance. For example, ballet dancers (hopefully) minimize their floor impacts, while accentuated floor impacts are integral to other styles such as tap, hip hop, and best of all – stomp (the name says it all). Unless isolated, this energy will travel through the structure of the building and radiate as sound in adjacent spaces. Stiffened structural slabs, floating floor assemblies, and spring-isolated sound barrier ceilings are often required to effectively isolate impact energy, particularly when dance studios are located above other occupied spaces. Again depending on the style, musical accompaniment for dance can be quite loud. The music often ranges from live, unamplified piano for classical ballet, to amplified, prerecorded audio for many other styles. Finally, there is high demand for surface area in dance studios, since the walls are typically occupied by ballet barres and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. That leaves limited space and budget to include sound absorptive room finishes.
Having spent considerable time growing up in dance studios, I was thrilled to have the opportunity recently to work with Gensler and the Boston Ballet School on the design of a new dance studio facility in Newton, MA. By collaborating closely throughout design and construction, we were able to develop integrated design solutions that met the acoustical goals without sacrificing the beauty or bottom line of the project. The new studios are big and full of sunlight, but they are also quiet, isolated, and well-controlled, through the inclusion of several strategic acoustical design features:
> Double stud walls separate each studio from each other, so that dancers aren’t distracted by the sounds of simultaneous classes in adjacent spaces.
> A double window separates the Grand Studio from the main reception and lounge area, so that people waiting in these lobby spaces can chat with each other and observe dancers in the studio without disturbing their focus.
> A strategic layout of mechanical equipment reduced the need for costly sound barrier constructions, and increased the distance between these noise-producing elements and the noise-sensitive dance studios. As a result, HVAC systems serving the dance studios are appropriately quiet, and the strategic equipment layout helped to maximize the efficiency of noise control measures, such as sound attenuators and internal duct lining.
> Cost-effective suspended ceilings absorb sounds within the studios to control reverberation, and block noise from ductwork in the ceiling plena and outdoor sounds above the roof.
> Resilient dance floors, used primarily to reduce wear-and-tear on dancers’ knees and other joints, are helpful for controlling impact sound transmission laterally between studios. Fortunately, no dance studios were located above other occupied spaces in this project, so additional impact isolation was not required.
The new Boston Ballet School dance studios are a wonderful addition to the Newton community, and will inspire talented dancers of all ages for many years to come. By incorporating these elements into the design of the building, the program will have the flexibility to continue growing and adapting to the ever-changing artistic landscape, without being limited by poor acoustics.
Pictured: The new Boston Ballet School. Notice the double windows separating the Grand Studio from the main reception and lounge area.