Rose Ayling-Ellis is making history – and learning to jive. “It’s a lot of jumping off the ground, I’m going to be so out of breath!”, says the actor, who will be the first ever deaf contestant on Strictly Come Dancing when it returns this weekend. She has some fears ahead of the return of the dance contest, namely the upcoming tango, and the shoes she is currently practising in. She holds them up to the camera. “Look!” she says. “It’s so bendy, it’s like paper on a heel.”
When the 26-year-old was announced as a contestant on the BBC series in August it felt momentous, not least because many still believe the harmful myth that deaf people cannot enjoy music or dance. Attending gigs with friends, Ayling-Ellis has met hearing people who thought it was pointless for her to be there. “They think we hear nothing,” she says. “But hearing stuff isn’t just about hearing stuff in your ear. It’s also visual, you watch the show, you feel it as well.” She regularly blasts soul music, Dolly Parton and Stevie Wonder in her car, and took hip-hop and ballet dance classes as a child. An experiment with the recorder was less successful: “I played so badly my mum banned me from practising at home,” she laughs.
Pre-show nerves aside, Ayling-Ellis is a confident presence and, despite avoiding caffeine, has plenty of energy. As a shy teenager attending a mainstream school in Kent, her passion for acting was sparked after attending a weekend course run by the National Deaf Children’s Society as a teenager. However, role models were few, says Ayling-Ellis, who uses British sign language and often performs in sign supported English (a method of signing that follows the grammatical order of English). After art college, she supplemented her acting with sewing jobs. “I just never thought I could do acting full-time. I never really saw deaf people on TV.”
However, a role in the BBC miniseries Summer of Rockets led Ayling-Ellis to an agent, and her current role as Frankie Lewis in EastEnders. She joined the soap as Danny Dyer’s on-screen daughter two weeks before lockdown, and has made her mark via a series of dramatic storylines, involving dark family secrets, a hit-and-run, and a brief spell in custody.
When she found out she had been chosen for Strictly after a late-night shoot for EastEnders that had lasted until 5am, she was stunned and says she struggled to keep it a secret; her mum cried with pride.
Ayling-Ellis seized the opportunity to appear on the show for the same reason other contestants do – to have the time of her life. But as she outlines the structural hurdles that deaf talent face on TV, it is apparent she wants to use her platform to address them. Progress is being made, she says, but it is slow. And it is not enough to just have deaf people in front of the camera. “You need more behind the camera, in the writing teams, or as producers and directors,” she says. “We still need to keep going, and keep the pace. We need people behind the scenes because that’s what makes it authentic and real to what deaf people’s experiences are like.”
On Strictly, staff have been given professional deaf awareness training, including the judges, and presenters Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman. The professional dancers and producers have learned snippets of BSL, and Ayling-Ellis will have an interpreter on set. While full of praise for the show’s commitment to accessibility, she is also clear deaf people deserve nothing less. “If you put the right support in place, get it all set up, then I can do my job as easily as anyone else”.
Ayling-Ellis wants to be the representation that she herself did not see on screen growing up. Many deaf children come from hearing families, some are perhaps the only deaf student in their school. “Hopefully, it will give them the realisation they can do whatever career they want,” she says. “Nothing is impossible, and I know that a lot of deaf children grow up in society that thinks that it’s not possible [for them to succeed]. But no – you can do it.”
Her mission, then, is twofold: to dance her way home with the glitterball trophy, and to demonstrate deaf people are limitless when the barriers are dismantled. However well-executed her jive, or tango, turns out to be, it is the latter goal which may have the biggest impact.