Where can we practice, and what equipment do we need?

DanceDemo videos give you a way to practice, but how about the where?

You can, of course, practice dances that don’t move much right there in your living room or kitchen. But, as we all discovered during the pandemic, even a lot of “stay in place” rhythms tend to have choreography that moves more than can comfortably be accommodated at home. And, what about the Smooths? The question comes back to, “where can we practice?”.

We have found that one of the best places to practice is on the exercise floor at your local gym (we’ve even practiced on the basketball court when the exercise floor was busy!). The floor is typically already designed for dance (Zumba, Jazzercise, etc), and most gyms will let you use the floor when there’s no class in progress (if not, try asking – before you join!)

BTW, those on Medicare should know that they may have access to “Silver Sneakers” or “Silver and Fit” through their Medicare provider. If so, they may have free gym access through one of these programs. We do.

OK, but what about the music and cues? If you’re practicing by yourself, no problem. Just use your smartphone and your favorite earbuds/headphones/etc and you’re good to go. But what about practicing as a couple?

Until recently, we didn’t have a good answer. When the floor is empty, or when nobody there objects, you can use an amplified speaker on your computer or smartphone. But what do you do when that is not possible?

For years, we have used an old Sentry 802 wireless headset. They work great. Plenty of range, decent sound quality, and 2 headphones per set. Unfortunately, they haven’t been manufactured since, probably, the 70’s, and used sets go for $50+ on ebay – and many of those are not in very good condition. Don’t bother with the newer Sentry wireless product – the FCC made them change the operating frequency and they have lousy range.

We’ve been waiting for a decent Bluetooth-based solution, and we’ve finally found one. To understand why it took so long, we need to take a short detour into the world of latency….

“Latency” is a fancy word for delay. Old analog wireless products, like our trusty Sentry 802′,s had no detectable delay between the time the signal arrives at the transmitter and when you hear it in the headphones across the room.

But Bluetooth is another matter. Originally, Bluetooth had huge latencies – often hundreds of milliseconds, plenty long enough to be noticeable to the human ear. If not compensated for somehow, you’d never be able to watch a video with Bluetooth headphones – you’d see people talk, then hear the words arrive noticeably later.

Smartphone (and other) manufacturers solved this problem by deliberately delaying the video to match the delay of the Bluetooth audio device. But, since the devices varied widely in their delays, there is a protocol in the Bluetooth standard that allows the device to tell the host what it’s delay actually is.

Fine for one device, but how’s that going to work for two?

Note that, for our use case, we don’t actually need to match any video to the audio (I’m assuming you’re not trying to watch the DanceDemos video while you dance). But we do need to match the delays. And, picking two random Bluetooth headphones, as I did recently, you’re likely to get delay differences that will mess up your dancing.

So, rule #1: use matching Bluetooth headphones/earbuds/etc.

Also, original Bluetooth devices had a range that was woefully inadequate for our use. This changed with Bluetooth 5.0. These newer devices have plenty of range. In fact, we use a pair of Bluetooth 5.0 devices (one transmit, one receive) to send the signal between the source laptop and the camera when we’re recording videos – often across a large dance floor at a festival event. And I barely have to adjust the video/audio timing. This is made possible by another feature of Bluetooth 5.0 – low latency mode, called “Atp-X Low Latency” (which our “remote camera” devices have).

So, rule #2: Use a Bluetooth 5.0 transmitter.

Ideally, we’d like to have BT 5.0 Atp-X LL on our gym dancing setup as well. That would give range and low latency. We would finally be able to match the 70’s-era technology of our Sentry headphones ;-). But, until recently, the only Atp-X LL headphones on the market were big, clunky, expensive devices aimed at gamers (unlike video watchers, manufacturers can’t just delay the video signal to compensate for the latency for gamers, so gamers will pay big $s to get low latency).

But we recently found an over-the-ear headphone that is reasonably comfortable, not too expensive (about $35 as of this writing), and supports Atp-X LL. More alternatives will surely follow.

So, now all we need is a way to transmit to two Bluetooth devices at the same time. Some smartphones (I’ve heard) can do this out of the box. PCs cannot. In fact, most laptops more than a year of two old don’t even have the hardware capability to do this. Even for those that do, Windows doesn’t support it anyway (I don’t know about Mac).

So, the more general solution is to use a 2-channel Bluetooth transmitter that plugs into the headphone jack on your computer (or smartphone, or TV).

We’ve tried a couple of them, and this one is our favorite. It’s inexpensive (about $25) and has the very nice feature of telling you which “codec” it has connected with – meaning you can see that it connected via Atp-X LL.

So, the optimal setup as of this writing is a pair of those headphones and the transmitter. As a bonus, you can plug this setup into your TV and use it for watching shows that would otherwise annoy your spouse (or to get more volume than your spouse really wants).

A slightly cheaper alternative is to buy a matching set of non-Apt-X-LL headphones like these (cost $32/pair when we bought them) and a transmitter. We bought these before we found the Apt-X LL headphones above and often use them because we find the behind-the-ear setup more comfortable to wear. Although they have higher latency, since we’re using a matched set, the absolute latency isn’t an issue for dance practice.

And our new Bluetooth solution works! The new ones are much lighter and more comfortable than the Sentry headphones. Easily recharged from USB, no messy alkaline batteries that might leak. Much better all around.

One more advantage of this setup over the old Sentry one – Bluetooth transmits in stereo. So, you get music in your left ear while the cuer whispers the steps to you in your right ear. We find this allows us to dance with lower volume settings in the often noisy environment at the gym.

Another plus to this new setup is that this transmitter (and it’s predecessor) has a separate internal volume control on each BT channel. Jean and I can use the volume control on our headphones to adjust our own volume independently of the other headphone (just like the Sentry).

So, now anybody can buy the necessary audio setup to practice at the gym without disturbing anyone – right off the rack.

So, go find a gym with a dance floor and start practicing!