Chris, a young disabled man, smiles at the camera - a text plate says "30 under 30" and "#30toWatch"

“Really? Deaf people can dance?” – Chris Fonseca, the deaf dance teacher

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This story is part of 30 Under 30.

 

Chris Fonseca is a deaf dancer and dance teacher. He has performed internationally and recently featured in Smirnoff’s advert – We’re Open #deafdancers.

As part of 30 Under 30, he shares his story and talks about changing perspectives, becoming a dance teacher and why more deaf dance role models are needed.

I became deaf through meningitis when I was two years old. At first I tried hearing aids but unfortunately they didn’t work for me. The next step was for me to try a Cochlear implant which I had when I was about five. In school, I had speech therapy but I didn’t like it because I felt quite embarrassed and quite isolated. The deaf world is really small and I grew up going to mainstream schools which was quite difficult. Eventually, I started meeting deaf people and I realised “oh these people are the same as me”.

Developing a passion for dance

I started listening to music through friends. I could feel the beat through my Cochlear implant and I’d look up the lyrics to understand the words. Then my Aunty gave me a video called Breaking 1984. I was obsessed with it and I taught myself how to dance. Just through repetition and practising at first. Then I decided that I wanted to improve my skills but having no deaf role models made it really difficult. So I stopped, unfortunately, and I just carried on with my life.

Then, in my second year of university, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to get involved in a deaf dance group. Dance had been my dream for years, so I thought it would be amazing to get involved. It was fantastic because everyone was deaf and everyone had the same passion as me, and it was an opportunity to show both deaf and hearing communities that deaf people can dance. That nothing is impossible. We did a tour, then I left the group to focus on giving back to the deaf community.

What I love most about dance is the freedom and enjoyment. And it’s a stress release. It’s like when I’m dancing, I just kind of fall into my own world. Dance really is my best friend – it’s always there for me.

Chris dancing in front of a crowd
A still of Chris in the Smirnoff ad

Changing perceptions

I started going to hearing dance classes in 2009. It was my first class ever. I went to the class and looked at all the people there and just noticed that their level was incredibly high. It made my confidence drop because hearing dancers are very, very fast. It’s fast paced and it’s not very accessible for deaf people. So I just focused on my skills and not on my deafness. There were a lot of mistakes to begin with but the mistakes just proved that I was trying. I just kept persevering with it over time.

I went to these classes regularly and when I struggled, I’d go up to the teacher in the breaks and say “can you please give me a cue?”. The teacher was like “You what, sorry?” and I’d say “I’m deaf so I could use a cue” and they’d be like “What? You’re deaf?”. I’m trying to show that, by getting these cues, a deaf person can dance.

I think a lot of hearing people are surprised because there’s a lot of stereotypes about deaf people and dance. They kind of look and go “Really? Deaf people can dance?” because a lot of hearing dancers connect to music through listening. But deaf people can dance in a different way. We feel the beat through vibrations and we look at the visual movement of dance. When I’m looking at choreography for example, I’m looking for visual movements and visual cues and then I feel the beat. And I guess that through telling hearing people that, you change their perception and they become more respectful.

I became a dance teacher to make dance accessible to deaf people

I started trying to get my friends to come to the hearing dance classes I was going to but they were like “no no no, it’s too scary, it’s not accessible”. I’d had the same experience so I encouraged them to just push through the barriers but they didn’t want to. I got home and thought what we really need here is a deaf dance teacher. So I decided to become one.

I went to an academy and learnt the skills and different methods of how to teach, how people’s learning processes work. Naturally, deaf and hearing people have different learning processes. Deaf people are reliant on counts, whereas for a hearing person most of it is sound. So I started teaching my class in 2013 and it’s still going now. It’s a huge passion of mine – teaching and dancing.

Chris performing a dance move next to the quote - dance is not an option it's who I am

Being involved in the Smirnoff advert is one of my proudest achievements

Since I left the dance group, I really just focused on improving my own skills and teaching. Trying to break in as a deaf dancer is hard and you just kind of get ignored, so I really had to push to sell myself and bother a lot of people to get my work recognised.

Then, one day, I got a random email. I read it and I was like “Is this spam or not?” so I emailed them and asked them to clarify the information. I read all the information about the project and I thought “wow, this is incredible”. It was an amazing opportunity to create a platform to celebrate deaf culture and also help to change hearing people’s perspective.

Since then, time has gone really fast. I auditioned, did the shooting day back in January, then we released the advert in March and there’s been lots of promotion through social media and billboards all around the UK. It’s been one of my proudest achievements. The advert helps to change hearing people’s perspective about deaf people and show that they can do anything except hear.

People have said that I’ve inspired them a lot and I’ve received a lot of positive messages which has been really lovely and heart-warming. My aim is to give something back to the deaf community and get more recognition of sign language. I want to show the importance of deaf culture and get hearing people interested.

We need more deaf dance role models

Teaching is my passion. I like sharing my knowledge and my passion with other dancer. I’ve noticed that lots of the younger generations are excited about getting involved with dance, they just need that little bit more encouragement.

When I gave up dancing, it was mainly because there were no deaf role models. Everybody has their dreams when they’re young but the first thing you need when you have that dream is a role model to give you that motivation, something to aim for. I went through a lot of struggles and barriers trying to learn in the hearing world, but now they don’t have to do that. I can pass what I’ve learnt on to them.

The deaf world is quite small and the deaf dance world is even smaller. Over time, I’ve tried to research and go out and perform in different places like Europe. One of my favourite things was when I went to perform at the Click Festival – a deaf film festival in France. It’s an opportunity for deaf people all over the world to come together at this one festival and I managed to meet some deaf international dancers there. It’s a great networking opportunity.

There’s obviously a lot of hearing role models for anyone who wants to be a dancer, but now, I think we need to have deaf dance role models too. My next step is to go on tour. I have more work to do to continue inspiring and breaking barriers. And I have lots of exciting projects to get involved in. All will be announced very soon!

Chris is sharing his story as part of our 30 Under 30 campaign. We’ll be releasing one story a day throughout June from disabled people under 30 who are doing extraordinary things. Keep up to date with all of our new stories on our 30 under 30 page.

To find out more about Chris and keep up to date with his work, visit Chris’ website.