As a dancer who is profoundly Deaf and a wheelchair user, I’ve been ecstatic over Rose Ayling-Ellis being the first Deaf contestant to take part on Strictly. Finally, the perfect opportunity to help dispel some of the stigmas towards Deaf people. For Deaf dancers, society’s assumptions and attitude are that we can’t dance if we can’t hear the music.
Deafness is a spectrum that means that two Deaf people – regardless of their audiograms – will experience music very differently. It will depend on the tones and frequencies that a person can access with their residual hearing, as well as any devices that the person uses, such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other technology.
Dance is not just an audio experience – it’s visual, emotional, and motion dependant. I have the world’s most powerful hearing aids. Even with them, I don’t “hear” music in the same way as hearing people do. They help me to feel the beat. I enjoy music by the vibrations and rhythm of the song, as well as following the lyrics.
I often have a BSL interpreter in my dance classes with me so that I can follow social conversations and instructions. Plus, my very patient inclusive dance teacher (Kate Stanforth), has adapted to the way I need to be taught.
However, there is still a struggle in accessing dance despite prominent Deaf performance artists such as Chris Fonseca, Rebecca A Withey, Mark Smith and Nadia Nadarajah providing more diversity and opportunities.
Compared to other activities, dancing is very visual; it’s about being creative and expressive. There are many forms, from ballet to hip-hop, so the way in which you dance isn’t as important – I can dance as a Deaf wheelchair user, even if that’s different to some of the mainstream dancing techniques. Dance is about enjoyment, the narrative, and emotion.
Rose has shown the importance of dance as a way of storytelling and making a statement. In week 8, Rose danced her couple’s choice, a contemporary dance to Clean Bandit’s Symphony. In the middle of the routine, Rose put her hands over her partner Giovanni Pernice’s ears, and the music went silent for 10 seconds while the performance continued.
Giovanni had to rely on Rose until the music gradually turned back up. A powerful moment that Rose dedicated to the Deaf community. In an interview with This Morning, Rose said “you see a deaf person getting along and doing what is ‘normal’, but you don’t see how much hard work goes behind it. The silent moment was to show this is what I do when I dance”.
Going from strength to strength, Rose has shown the world that dance is not just about sound. She has openly talked about how she learns to dance differently – through repetition, muscle memory and feeling the music. While Rose has shown to be a phenomenal dancer, some people’s comments (in my view) have at times felt excessive.
In week 8, only Craig Revel Horwood gave any constructive technical feedback, with others standing up out of respect, going so far as saying that it was the best thing they have ever seen, and many viewers saying that they “forgot” she is Deaf.
As Rose has said, there is nothing wrong with being Deaf; it is a joy to be Deaf. Only talking about how “inspiring” she is puts Rose on a pedestal that sometimes seems to be above any criticism.
This does both the Deaf community and Rose a disservice. It enforces the idea that a Deaf person can only be inspirational simply for being Deaf, not their achievements.
For me – her dancing ability alone as a Deaf person is not why I see her as an icon. By using her performances (frequently involving BSL dialogue) to help educate the Hearing world about the Deaf community, her impact has resulted in a massive increase in searches for BSL courses alone – by 488%!
Rose has used the opportunity on Strictly’s platform to bring Deaf awareness on numerous issues, which is where a lot of my respect for Rose comes from. As a contestant, she could have simply done her dance for the week and finished there.
However, she has made a huge effort to ensure she doesn’t let her platform go to waste. From discussing Deaf culture and the importance of BSL, to the effect of society’s attitudes and why Deaf access is vital – Rose has made a huge impact.
Through the growing bond with Giovanni, Rose has shown the significance as a Deaf dancer of having a positive connection with your partner. Giovanni has been praised for his attitude in ensuring he made teaching accessible, through picking up BSL with her, and the pair wearing BSL-themed Deaf Identity jumpers.
Showing that with the right partnership, Deaf and Hearing people can work together. That Deaf people can thrive in the right dancing environment with appropriate access in place. Through learning from each other, Rose and Giovanni have shown how dance teachers can properly work with Deaf students – a (hopefully) promising future!
Rose is also becoming a role model to other Deaf people to see that there are Deaf dancers out there. This is especially important for Deaf children who are too often told they can’t dance. Deaf children are being inspired by Rose’s success – making Strictly history with the earliest 40 score in week 6 for her Halloween tango.
Numerous Deaf children and schools have sent in pictures and videos saying how Rose has been inspiring them. It is amazing to know that the next generation of Deaf people will have Rose as a role model and that she is helping families see that being Deaf is no barrier.
Rose is an icon to the Deaf community, showing our past and present selves what is possible with determination and the right support.
Having Rose dance on such a high-profile platform makes me cautiously optimistic for future Deaf dancers.
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