We’re all equal on the dance floor…

It’s a concept I’ve personally known to be true since… Forever. Deaf people can dance. The ability to hear does not directly affect the ability to be rhythmical. Rhythm comes from within. Every good dancer knows that. 

So imagine my delight to find that vodka brand Smirnoff were launching a new inclusive campaign to celebrate diversity and equality for deaf people. Featuring dance, of course. 

Smirnoff’s “We’re Open” campaign shot a commercial earlier this year featuring a group of deaf dancers being taught by London based deaf dancer Chris Fonseca. 

Those already on the deaf dance circuit may recognise Chris from his time in the deaf dance crew Def Motion and also as a solo freestyler across the country. So Smirnoff did a great job by choosing an authentic deaf dancer who lives, breathes and sleeps dance to lead this campaign. 

Armed with catchphrases such as “we’re all equal on the dance floor” and “dance is a universal language,” Smirnoff employed a group of deaf actors and dancers to work with Chris to demonstrate that we are all more than able to hold our own on the dance floor. 

I was fortunate enough to be involved as a studio dancer and despite street dance not really being my ‘thing’ I thoroughly enjoyed coming together with other deaf dancers to enjoy the power of movement. 

Dancing alongside me were a real mix of talents including film maker David Ellington, freelance media creative Fifi Garfield and actor Will Lewis. None of these were classically trained in dance but all passionate about performance and with a natural talent for getting funky. 

“I am not a pro dancer and emailed them to let them know that I am an ok-ish dancer and she says that’s the whole point – to see all of us having fun dancing.” Fifi Garfield

“It was a significant moment for Deaf people and I had to be there. The exposure and impact on mainstream was not be missed.” Will Lewis

-backstage with David Ellington. 

You may have already seen the commercial as its been launched on British television and soon will hit the United States. The billboards have been dotted across the country, with exposure for deaf dancers at the highest it’s ever been. 

On Facebook and Twitter the #deafdancers hashtag is trending and on Smirnoff’s tumblr site there’s a whole list of images and moving GIFs taken from the shooting day. The response has been mostly positive, with only a few select comments asking about the authenticity of the deaf dancers and whether or not the whole thing was staged…

Well, truth be told there were indeed some non-deaf dancers involved (some of which are awkwardly featured on GIFs with the hashtag #deafdancer) but most were either CODAs or had their own unique connection to sign language and the deaf community. Sure, there were a couple of hot hearing dancers just thrown in for good measure but this is TV after all. 

That said, I feel that Smirnoff missed a trick by making out that it’s a dance group made up of entirely deaf dancers. Seeing as Chris was the teacher and deaf himself, would it not be more impressive to show the truth – that this was a deaf dancer teaching a routine to hearing people too? Would it not be more powerful to demonstrate how his deafness does not limit him to only teaching deaf people but his dance ability overcomes all? 

Because that is what really happened. Chris, a very talented dancer taught us – group of mostly deaf and some hearing dancers – a routine and we all danced. Together. As equals

But I get it, maybe the world isn’t ready to see that yet. That’s probably why Smirnoff mention in one of its interviews the cringe worthy notion that deaf people feel the vibrations; a statement I’ve always disliked because it creates the assumption that we feel things wherever we are with some kind of superhuman power. 

Deaf dancers at Gallaudet University recently reported that they learn rhythms by repetition and rehearsals. Nyle DiMarco, a deaf model currently starring in Americas Dancing with Stars also stated he stays in time by visual cues and memory. And as a dancer who trained classically at University with a profound deafness, I can attest that this is true. 

But like I said – it’s television. 

That bugbear aside, the ‘We’re Open” campaign is a fantastic opportunity for working deaf actors and dancers to come together and showcase their talents. 

Whilst the nitty gritty details of the commercials tag line and selling point may not be entirely true, I believe the truth is even better. In this day and age deaf people can dance but also… Deaf people can teach. Anybody. Deafness aside. 

I take my hat off to Smirnoff for sourcing real deaf talent and I applaud Chris Fonseca, the star of the campaign, for his enormous achievement and talent. I sincerely hope this will be the start of more mainstream opportunities for deaf dancers and also for more misconceptions to be  quashed. 

So… you wanna dance? We’re open 😉 

Watch the commercial here: Smirnoff We’re Open


The unspoken benefits of a deaf school…

There are only 21 deaf schools in the UK now, compared to back in 1982 when there was 75. The drastic decline is frightening especially when it’s been recorded that only 36% of deaf children are attaining 5 GCSE’s grade A*-C. 
In my eyes it’s not all to do with intelligence. A deaf child can do anything, providing they have the right support in place. It’s mostly down to accessibility. 
Now, some people have argued that with technology improving mainstream schools are now much better at providing for deaf students. By technology I’m assuming they mean hearing aids, radio aids and whatever other amplification or alerting equipment they may use. 

But as someone who has attended both mainstream and a specialist deaf school I can see clear distinctions between the two. 
I worked hard at mainstream school and I did very well, no doubt about that. But I was insecure and on edge the whole time I was there.

I hated the radio aids I was given to wear and made to look different by. I avoided speaking in public, blushing whenever I was made to and I spent most days urging the school clock to hurry up so I could go home. My mum always said I was ‘wishing my life away.’ But I just knew I felt repressed. 

At mainstream school it was often a battle to get the education just right for me. I didn’t want to be pulled out of French and Music lessons like the other deaf students so my parents made sure I remained in class.

And I didn’t want to be segregated from my peers and made to sit alone with a support worker, so there were more meetings about that. My French teacher gave me additional lessons so I could practise lip reading for the oral exam and truth be told, I worked my socks off to get the grades. 

I left mainstream school with 11 good GCSEs but very little confidence in myself. 

I started at Mary Hare school for the deaf in 2002 and referred to it as a ‘dream school.’ Sure, I was a teenager and amazed by all the -ahem – attractive boys, but more than that I felt for the first time in my life normal

Having a chat with peers was no longer an awkward struggle. There was just one teacher of the deaf in each class, no support worker beside me taking notes or interpreting. I felt truly independent. It was brilliant. 

I continued to work hard but the other areas in my life were beginning to be fulfilled too. I had friends. I had hobbies. Boyfriends! I was no longer hiding away in the background. I was being true to myself. 

More importantly for my career, my tutors noticed my passion for performing arts and gave me an education in it like no other. I received tuition in singing, dance, playing the drums and as a stage performer. 

Throughout my five years at mainstream school I was never once cast in a show or given a speaking role in a production. At Mary Hare I got lead roles in each show I did. It enabled me to pursue a career in the arts, encouraging me to take my dance degree and to eventually getting roles in TV and film. 

I don’t think I would ever have had the confidence to pursue my passions without having gone to Mary Hare. I would have remained in the background, quietly working hard but never wanting to be seen because of how insecure and ‘different’ I felt. I probably would have remained very lonely too. 

That’s why attending a deaf school, for me, is about so much more than just the education. Yes it is accessible and deaf-centered, but more than anything it supported my self esteem and sense of identity in a way that mainstream school could never do. 

Hearing people take for granted the ability to feel ‘the same.’ But if we put a bunch of them in a deaf school and labelled it ‘mainstreaming’ I’m sure they would appreciate just how difficult it can be to blossom in an environment where you naturally feel inferior. 

Of course, mainstream school can be a great experience for a lot of deaf students and in no way are two deaf people ever the same. But you know that feeling where you go somewhere and everyone’s like you and it feels natural and easy and like coming home? That was Mary Hare for me. 

I hope every deaf student finds that place of their own, wherever that may be. 

– me (second left) with a group of peers at Mary Hare.