Sophie McMahon, Comment Print Editor
Watching Strictly Come Dancing has been a Saturday night staple for my grandparents and I for as long as I can remember. For those unfamiliar with the concept, professional dancers are paired with some of the nations most loved celebrities in a bid to reach the final and win the Glitterball Trophy. There have always been dances which have taken their place in the Strictly Hall of Fame, one of my personal favourites was Jay McGuiness and Aliona Vilani’s jive from 2015. But this year, one contestant has been the clear stand out throughout the series.
Rose Ayling-Ellis has been hailed a hero to the deaf community for being the first profoundly Deaf contestant to appear on the show. Her pairing with professional dancer, Giovanni Pernice, has left viewers like me captivated by their ability to form such a formidable partnership, whilst tackling the obstacles of their deaf-hearing relationship.
When the season first began, many wondered how Rose would even be able to dance such elaborate routines if she couldn’t hear the music. She later explained that with her hearing-aids, she can hear the beat, as well as the vibrations of the music through the dancefloor in Elstree Studio. She has often spoken candidly on her social media about the realities of her deafness, especially during times like in Week Four when her hearing aids broke which made it hard to rehearse. Bringing viewers into her world has always seemed to be her aim, and even if you don’t follow her online, you can see her impact on Saturday nights.
That impact was translated into statistics by British Sign Language (BSL), who revealed a 3000% increase in sign-ups to their free trial. BSL also reported a 488% surge in internet searches. Clearly, Ayling-Ellis’ visibility is affecting the nation. Permeating through Strictly’s loyal fanbase and driving them towards an important cause.
More than just educating viewers, Rose has led to real changes for those involved within the show. The show’s producers have received training in deaf awareness, alongside learning some basics of British Sign Language (BSL). This has also been adopted by some of the show’s professional dancers. In early weeks, Gorka Marquez was seen signing applause to Rose which has now been adopted by all his co-stars. What makes this more special is that the signing isn’t done just for Rose, with many of her co-stars receiving the same sign following the completion of their dance. It makes the show, which is already considered a pioneer of diversity, even more inclusive.
Whilst training and during the live shows, an interpreter helps Rose to understand Giovanni, the Judges, and her co-stars. Resulting from her appearance on the show, the BBC through their iPlayer have given an option to watch with an interpreter on-screen where previously only subtitles were available. This new feature increases the accessibility for those who are reliant on a translator.
Rose’s impact has also been seen on the dancefloor. Two weeks ago, the pair performed a Couple’s Choice to Symphony by Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson. Midway through the dance, Rose covered Giovanni’s ears and the music was cut. Taking him by the hand, she guided him into her world, and they danced in silence. More than just being an almost technically perfect performance (scoring 39), it was incredibly powerful, reducing viewers like me to tears.
Elsewhere in the competition, the couple have used BSL within their performances. In Week Five, they performed a Viennese Waltz to Alicia Keys’ Fallin’ where they signed an argument in the beginning stages of the dance. Just last week, they danced a Quickstep to Love Is an Open Door from Frozen the Musical and once again they signed throughout the dance to one another.
Speaking about these performances Lindsay Foster, Executive Director of Signature, a BSL awarding body said, ‘to see Rose signing during dancing but also to see her partner, Giovanni signing and learning alongside her and embracing the language and the culture is fantastic, it really does give us a boost’ (ITV)
Following this performance, in Week Six of the competition, Rose performed a Tango for Halloween week to Ed Sheeran’s Shivers. The performance scored a perfect 40 and was the earliest to do so in Strictly’s 17-year history. She has given deaf people up and down the country a person to look up to, who has defied all obstacles in a society that is built for those that can hear.
‘For so long, deaf people have been isolated and not really part of the society so the more people are understanding, the more diverse everyone will be. Everyone will be able to communicate with each other’ – Rose Ayling-Ellis (This Morning)
What is lovely to see as a viewer, is that Giovanni is learning as much from Rose as she is learning from him. Week by week you can see his progression as a teacher, choreographer but perhaps most important of all, as a person. Having been a professional dancer for over 20 years, he spoke of the difficulty of having to dance without music last week, even for just ten seconds. With his newfound understanding for what Rose has been doing for the last eight weeks, his admiration for her is obvious.
With one in six in the UK having some form of hearing loss, Rose has stepped onto the nation’s biggest stage and proved that deaf people really can do anything.