People tend to watch Strictly Come Dancing for one of two things: the dancing, or to relish the latest casualties of the “Strictly curse”. But forbidden relationships have taken a backseat this year, with fans instead fixated on the partnership between Rose Ayling-Ellis – the first deaf contestant in the show’s history – and partner Giovanni Pernice.
Many viewers needed educating on how the actor would be able to compete without hearing the music. Ayling-Ellis explained that she could hear the beat, as well as feeling the vibrations from the live band through the dancefloor at Elstree studios. And, week after week, she has not only defied expectations but educated the public in ways you might not expect from a sequin-covered, spray-tan-heavy Saturday night TV show.
Ayling-Ellis and Pernice – who are currently tipped to win the series – have not only wowed with their skill but also their storytelling. On last week’s show, the pair danced a typically strong routine to Symphony by Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson. Halfway through, Ayling-Ellis covered Pernice’s ears and the music turned to silence as they danced on. From that point on, a technically impressive Strictly routine had become something much more powerful. Rose took Giovanni by the hand and led him into her world – with no sound but, as before, joy. The tribute to the deaf community was praised by viewers and judges alike, landing them a near-perfect score of 39 out of 40. Elsewhere, in week five they performed a Viennese waltz, incorporating sign language into their routine. Searches for sign language increased by 488% as a result and the British Sign Language Courses website saw a 2,844% increase in signups for free trials of their training programmes the following day.
Having a deaf contestant on the show has not only broadened the horizons of the viewers, but of those involved with the series, too. The show’s producers have had deaf awareness training and learned some sign language, as have some of the professional dancers (Gorka Marquez was spotted in the early episodes signing “applause” instead of clapping, which was soon adopted by the rest of his co-stars). Ayling-Ellis has a sign-language interpreter present, and on BBC iPlayer there’s now an option to watch the programme with BSL interpretation (previously the only option on the programme was subtitles). And it has been particularly heartwarming to watch resident lothario Pernice have his mind blown in real time at his partner’s determination and infectious positivity. Her growth on the dancefloor is as lovely to watch as his own growth as a person.
In many ways, Strictly has been quietly pioneering in terms of representation for some time. Former contestants include Paralympians Jonnie Peacock, Laura Steadman and Will Bayley, and JJ Chalmers, the TV presenter who was injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan. In 2018, the ballroom pros danced alongside the Candoco Dance Company, made up of disabled and non-disabled dancers, and use same-sex pairings.
Indeed, over the past few years it has begun to fully represent its LGBTQ+ following, too. Last season, former boxer Nicola Adams and her partner Katya Jones made history as the first same-sex couple to take part in the UK series. The same year, an opening number saw Pernice, Marquez and Johannes Radebe perform a Priscilla, Queen of the Desert-inspired dance dressed in drag. The year before, we saw the show’s first same-sex routine, as Radebe and fellow professional Graziano Di Prima danced to Emeli Sandé’s Shine. If for some reason Ayling-Ellis misses out on winning the Glitterball, then consistent high scorers John Whaite and Johannes Radebe – the first male partnership on the show – are certainly contenders. And to think, Whaite initially asked to dance with a woman on the show, fearing backlash from viewers.
Representation is important, but Strictly goes a step further by integrating and celebrating its diverse contestants. After their groundbreaking routine, Ayling-Ellis praised Pernice for his choreography. “I feel very thankful for your determination to make this dance the most positive, happy dance it can be, because, being deaf, there’s nothing wrong [with it], it’s such a joy to be deaf,” she said. And oh what a joy she is to watch.