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Dublin: 19 °C Thursday 22 August, 2019

A high-tech backpack built for bass vibration - all in a day's work for this deaf dance instructor

We went over to London to participate in a dance class given by Chris Fonseca.

IT WAS A typically balmy summer’s day in London as I headed out to a dance studio in Elephant & Castle – to do something very untypical for me.

As I stepped off the Tube, the streets were full of hustle and bustle and the sound of passing overheard trains, but the small side alley that housed Husky Studios was quieter.

Away from the busier streets that had greeted me, I had a moment to reflect on what on earth I was doing there.

I had been invited to attend a dance class there, taught by a man named Chris Fonseca. So far, so normal, right?

Wrong.

It all starts getting a bit more interesting when you find out that Chris is no average dance instructor – in fact, without his cochlear implant he is what is referred to as profoundly deaf and cannot hear the music he dances to at all. So how can he choreograph and teach routines, you ask?

Well, that was what I was going to find out.

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Full disclosure before we go any further: I’m not exactly a master of coordination. Despite this, Chris reassured me that I was there to “there to learn, not to impress.” (Which was lucky, because I certainly wasn’t going to be impressing anyone with my moves…)

Feeling the beat

Another element of the day’s proceedings was the addition of a SubPac. SubPacs came onto the music scene via a Kickstarter campaign in Toronto in 2013 - the M2 mobile model we were using is strapped to the body like a fancy backpack (or jet pack, depending on how wild your imagination is running).

The SubPac enables the wearer to feel low frequencies in music through the back using “tactile transducers” and translate the music into physically-felt vibrations. All you have to do is plug in your phone or laptop and the SubPac does the rest. (They’re also used in virtual reality and gaming fields, as well as in studios by music professionals.)

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The idea behind using these high-tech creations on the day was to give a hearing person like me a glimpse of what it felt like for Chris to feel the beat. The SubPac can be used by deaf people to experience music in a whole new way, adding a new physical dimension to the musical experience.

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In addition, using these SubPacs himself at home has helped Chris to over half the amount of time it used to take him to choreograph routines, as the tech acts as “a problem-solver to refine his dancing”.

Pushing forward

My advice for people the first time getting involved in the class, if they’re nervous or afraid, I always ask “How do you know if you don’t try?”

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Chris’s words calmed me as the class began. The Subpacs were ready to go and Flying Lotus came on through the studio sound system. I was certainly nervous, but I was also certainly going to try.

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Chris broke the dance moves down into three separate elements – the first inspired by the barbers, the second a butcher and the third from skate-boarding.

In the end, the dance class was hugely enjoyable and I learnt a lot (despite the fact I couldn’t even hope to master most of the moves). Chris was right: it was about feeling the beat and taking part rather than learning slick moves.

Afterwards, I spoke to Chris about people feeling self-conscious around letting go and dancing in public and for some advice for those of us with two stubborn left feet.

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Of course, this is a totally minor challenge compared to the struggles he has faced breaking into the dance community as a deaf person. However, his experiences of facing adversity head-on have made him a pretty wise person to hit up for some advice, big or small.

“I definitely believe that anyone can dance. It’s all about feeling the beat and it’ll move you automatically.

“When I go to hearing dance classes, it’s good but people can be a little bit dismissive. I want to create a platform for deaf people in the mainstream and show that deaf people can dance and they can do the same things as hearing people. It’s really that both hearing and deaf people just have a different learning process.

“Hearing people rely half on the words half on the count, but deaf people rely strongly on the count to help them with the process and choreography. But really, deaf people and hearing people have the same aim when it comes to dancing.”

Where to from here?

The hearing world is very big. But the Deaf world can be very small. And the Deaf dance world can be even smaller than that.

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Chris has achieved a lot, and the next frontier he wants to tackle is inspiring other deaf people to understand that dancing can be for them. As he continues to work on adapting and progressing his dance moves, he also wants to act as a role model for those in Deaf culture.

In his own words, he sums up the challenges he wants to tackle next:

One thing I’d really like to tell the hearing community, is that if you see a deaf person, look at their skills and their talent, not their deafness. Deaf people and the Deaf community have lots of skills and lots of potential, Deaf dancers in the community have a huge range of skills.

“And really, deaf people just need that promotion. And the promotion of Deaf dancing – that means that deaf people will see it and say “I can do the same as a hearing person.” And the most important thing I feel is role models – which will help deaf people keep their passion.”

Let’s just hope the rest of us can feel the beat and two-step as he takes the lead.

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Now read: Meet the man who can teach you how to dance – without being able to hear the music>

And next: 6 brilliant Irish people who overcame the odds>

Chris Fonseca doesn’t let his deafness stand in the way of his dance ambitions.  Smirnoff – We’re Open is all about including everyone, no matter what their circumstances.  Please drink Smirnoff responsibly. Visit drinkaware.ie. We have used Deaf to refer to the Deaf community as a whole throughout, and “deaf” for hearing acuity.

dirn

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