Kevin Watson talks to the star of the new vodka Smirnoff advert, Chris Fonseca, who is inspiring Deaf people to express themselves through music and dance.
“I don’t feel the music but I feel the beat” … “Nobody knows we’re deaf on the dancefloor”
They are the key messages from a recent TV and social media campaign to promote Smirnoff vodka featuring a London dance teacher and his gang of deaf dancers.
For Chris moving to music is what life is all about and his mission is to inspire other Deaf people to be just like him.
Born and raised in Eltham in South East London, Chris contracted meningitis as a toddler and became profoundly deaf in both ears by the age of 2. He now wears a Cochlear Implant in one ear. “I use BSL/SSE/Oral to help me communicate” says Chris.
Music has been a long held passion for Chris and expressing that love through dance seemed a natural thing to him. He told me: “I’ve been passionate about music since my late teens. I cannot go a day without listening to music.”
He was inspired to take up dancing by the 1984 breakdancing-themed comedy-drama “Breakin’” and made the choice to teach himself. “My inspiration for dance started when I was 12 years old, after my Auntie encouraged me to watch ‘Breakin’. That was the start of it. I spent hours in my bedroom self–teaching myself dance moves inspired by the visual movement of dance. Experimenting with the music. I’ve always had a passion for dance.”
He is mainly self-taught but also learnt via classes that focused on lyrical hip hop. He passionately believes there are other ways to enjoy music beyond hearing it. It’s all about feeling the beat on the dance floor.
For Chris to be able to develop his skills and interpret lyrical music into choreography with perfect timing he listens and feels the beats through vibrations. He perfects it during
In 2011 during his second year at Wolverhampton University, Chris joined an all deaf dance group called ‘Def Motion’ which had been set up at the suggestion of the organisers of Deaffest – the UK’s annual Deaf Film Festival. Their routines were heavily influenced by Michael Jackson and street dance.
“I’ve been passionate about music since my late teens. I cannot go a day without listening to music”
With Def Motion Chris performed at the HMV Forum as a support act for Deaf rapper Signmark, at the Paralympics opening ceremony in 2012 and at the Clin d’oeil festival in France.
In 2014, he joined Studio 68 dance training academy teaching other dancers. “An amazing twelve-week experience where I had the opportunity to attend a dance training academy and learn various dance styles with many different choreography techniques. I learnt about teaching strategies, musicality and rhythm and I also received very useful industry advice.”
“I also learned to become more versatile, improve my dance skills and learn the fundamentals of dance style. Especially in terms of choreography. I am passionate about creating my own choreography from scratch and at Studio 68 I was able to learn the techniques involved so I now understand how to interpret lyrical music with beats and rhythm with the right timing.”
He has now left Def Motion and works mainly on solo projects as a freelance dancer.
“I’ve worked on various projects, from dance videos, performances and theatre. The latest project I worked on was ‘Like Real People do it’ a theatre showcase at the Clin d’oeil festival in France last summer. I’m now working on some other exciting projects which I will announce soon!”
So how did the Smirnoff opportunity come about? “I had been working hard to market myself in an effort to have my work recognised more widely. Then suddenly one day, I received this unexpected amazing opportunity. It came through an email from the TV advertising agency working for Smirnoff who had found me through my youtube videos. Mind-blowing!”
The start of the process was the recruitment of the deaf dancers who would accompany Chris during the campaign. The HeadNod talent agency held a series of live and video auditions.
“I was one of the judges at the auditions assessing over forty dancers along with director Zachary Heinzerling and his media team. That was an honour and a great experience,” says Chris.
“Then we all attended a wardrobe session. It was great to meet all the deaf dancers who had been chosen. To see all their happy faces was a nice feeling and I knew I would enjoy working with this team”
Then to the hard work of shooting the commercial with his new friends. They spent three whole days in the studio getting everything just right. Chris explains: “It was three full days of shooting, but I have to say it was a magnificent experience. I was exhausted at the end after having given everything in three days of full-on dancing!
“From the first day of filming everything was happening so fast. We also had lots of photo sessions for other parts of the campaign and I also had interviews to do as well.”
“It came through an email from the TV advertising agency working for Smirnoff who had found me through my youtube videos. Mind-blowing!”
Chris was lucky to have such a talented team around him on his first major national shoot: “I have to say a big well done to all the post production team, the photographic team, the stylist team, the food providing team, the runners, and of course the interpreter team who all did an amazing job to make sure production of the advert ran smoothly.”
Everything went to plan and the campaign was a real success. Smirnoff marketing director Julie Bramham says: “We were privileged to work with someone as inspiring as Chris and are delighted to be able to help celebrate diversity and move people
to be more inclusive.”
Chris hopes this national exposure will help him to take his dancing on to a new level. “I would like to set up my own dance studios where I can continue rehearsing and teaching and holding workshops. I would also like to tour internationally and continue to inspire and have my dance work further recognised.
Chris has some sound advice for any Deaf people who may have considered dancing themselves but have felt held back by their deafness. “Success is not achieved by comparing yourself to others but by you focussing on your own strengths and deciding where you should be.”
Through a number of inspirational personal mottos, Chris promotes the “can do” attitude. “Dream it, believe it and achieve it” is one of his favourites. He also likes “Dreams don’t work unless you do.”, “How do you know if you don’t try?”, “No struggle, no progress” and “Mistakes are proof that you are trying.”
Dance can make a real difference to the lives of Deaf people. He tells his peers to ignore the perception that music and dance are only for those with hearing. The personal feel-good factor is available to everyone. “It helps with confidence, inspires you and most important of all, makes you feel happy. When people express themselves through dance they can even learn to love themselves more!”
“I always wanted to be a dance teacher. I didn’t think it mattered, that I was deaf. There’s not many teachers out there who can teach a deaf person how to hear music. We can’t hear the lyrics, but we feel the beat. We are all the same on the dancefloor.”
Watch the Smirnoff Vodka advert.
Contact Chris Fonseca here.