Strictly Come Dancing is welcoming its first ever deaf contestant this year – EastEnders star Rose Ayling-Ellis.
Since May 2020, the 26-year-old has played Frankie Lewis, the daughter of Mick Carter (Danny Dyer), in the BBC One soap.
Her casting on Strictly has understandably led some viewers to wonder how a hearing-impaired contestant will be able to participate in a show that relies on the ability to listen to a live band and dance in time to a beat.
Ayling-Ellis, on the other hand, hopes that this will be an excellent opportunity to educate others on how deaf people experience music and to challenge assumptions.
“A lot of people believe that deaf people can’t hear music, enjoy music, or dance, so I thought it would be a good platform for me to break that stereotype,” she says.
On the Strictly 2021 launch show, which airs on BBC One this Saturday, Ayling-Ellis will be paired with her professional partner (18 September).
The show will also provide viewers with their first look at how this year’s celebrities, including Dan Walker, Robert Webb, and Nina Wadia, will fare on the dancefloor this season.
The casting of Ayling-Ellis on the show was praised for being inclusive, but some viewers were unsure how it would work in practise.
“It is a common misconception that deaf people cannot enjoy music,” the actress tells BBC News.
“I have a hearing aid, so I can hear some of the music and the beat.” I can hear someone singing, but I’m not sure what they’re saying. “I can feel the vibrations as well.”
Vibrations from the live band led by Dave Arch can be felt through the large dancefloor at the show’s Elstree studios in the case of Strictly.
The EastEnders actress adds that she will be able to follow the rhythm with the help of her professional partner.
“I’ll be concentrating on reading my partner’s body language as well as counting in my head to help with timing,” she says. “So for me, it’s a mix of everything.”
“However,” she adds, “not all deaf people are the same; each deaf person will have their own unique musical experience.” I love music and can’t wait to learn how to dance professionally for Strictly!”
Strictly Come Dancing executive producer Sarah James says the production team has been in contact with the actress to discuss her practical and logistical requirements for the show.
“The team and I have already learned a lot from Rose,” James says. “She’s an incredible person, and she’s also very honest about what she needs and how we need to adapt, so it’s been an ongoing conversation.” We’re all doing deaf awareness training, which is fantastic, and we’re learning sign language, which is also fantastic.”
Ayling-Ellis’s debut on Strictly comes just weeks after screenwriter Jack Thorne told the Edinburgh TV Festival that the industry must do more to support and encourage disabled people.
“Obviously, Rose will need an interpreter with her at all times,” James says, “so she’ll always have an interpreter with her in training.” Then, later in the show, you might see her with an interpreter on camera. She’ll obviously need someone to interpret the judges’ comments as well as her conversation with Claudia [Winkleman].” But, aside from that, I know Rose is excited for the show, and I can’t wait to see what she does.”
While some viewers might feel embarrassed or awkward about asking questions around issues like this, there are many deaf people who have made efforts in recent years to increase understanding and break down any stigma.
In an article for British Deaf News, published last year, a writer with the nickname Deafie Blogger explained: “With music, I can hear it whilst wearing my hearing aids, but I need a little increase in volume and lyrics to understand what’s being said/to know what song is playing.
“It’s similar to lip-reading; without lyrics, I know there’s sound, but I can’t tell what’s being sung.”
She went on to say that most deaf people can feel music vibrations through their bodies, especially if they are standing near a speaker or, if the music is loud enough, through the floor.
Deaf people, she explained, are better able to hear louder music, especially when using hearing aids or headphones, but how well specific artists and songs can be heard depends in part on factors within the music.
“I struggle to hear high-pitched songs, for example, Sam Smith, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift – mostly female singers I find difficult to listen to,” she said. I enjoy low-pitched songs by Adele, Olly Murs, Ed Sheeran, and other male/boy band singers.”
When asked during a webinar about the reaction of the deaf community to her participation in Strictly, Ayling-Ellis says, “They are very excited.” However, it will be interesting to see how a hearing audience reacts.
“And I just hope that a lot of good comes out of it, that it improves the experience of deaf people.” They [the deaf community] will hope that many people’s attitudes will change, and that deaf people will gain more experience, more jobs, become more involved in the industry, and the industry will become more inclusive.”
“I feel like I have a purpose because I’m deaf, and being the first deaf person on Strictly feels like a good chance to break the stereotype of what deaf people can and can’t do,” she says.