When she was a small child – too young to remember, though her mother has told her this story – Rose Ayling-Ellis was once so delighted to be at the park, she excitedly climbed on to a bench and started dancing. People stopped and, unable to resist her infectious happiness, clapped and cheered along.
Two decades later, millions more were clapping and cheering (and, I suspect, sobbing at times) as Ayling-Ellis and her partner, Giovanni Pernice, became 2021 Strictly Come Dancing champions in the most emotional and joyous finale I can ever remember.
Yet, for once, it felt as if there were no losers: the runners-up, John Whaite and his partner Johannes Radebe, would have been easy winners any other year, as would AJ Odudu, who had to pull out of the final after an injury, but Ayling-Ellis had something extra – the show’s first deaf contestant, she had to work harder than anyone else, although the effort never seemed laboured. She is a beautiful dancer, light and agile and emotive. She radiates pure joy.
“I was so shocked,” says Ayling-Ellis of the moment her name was announced, when we spoke briefly by Zoom, joined by a sign-language interpreter the morning after the final. “It was really weird – it felt like I was out of my body for a moment.” She is tired and happy – “We celebrated last night. There was a bit of prosecco, and dancing” – but she says it hasn’t really sunk in yet.
It was emotional behind the scenes, she says; she had to get her makeup redone at least twice before the trophy announcement. But this probably helped when it came to being crowned champion: “I was crying so much beforehand that I ran out of tears,” she says – though as soon as she hugged her mum – who was sitting in the audience with Ayling-Ellis’s boyfriend – she “burst into tears and couldn’t stop”.
Despite a strong series, with some of the best couples the series has seen, Ayling-Ellis, 27, was always a favourite. She was the first to get the perfect score of 40, which she did in week six. Her acting skills – she’s in EastEnders – are a given, but the expressiveness in her body (or “musicality” as the judges would put it), when she cannot really hear the music, is extraordinary. One dance, Ayling-Ellis and Pernice’s “couple’s choice”, was a powerful, celebratory routine that featured a silent section halfway through, in tribute to the deaf community. When they performed it again for the final, it lost none of its power – I watched it with goosebumps.
“I love it so much,” she says of the show, when we spoke a couple of weeks earlier, after a long day in which she had been trying to perfect the American Smooth. “I love all the ballroom,” she says. “It’s the Latin I’m terrified of – it’s fast, there’s a lot of counting, it’s a bit more solo, you’re not really [dancing close] together. With ballroom, I don’t have to think as much.”
She doesn’t “feel the vibrations” of the music, as has been claimed, but instead commits each step to muscle memory and counts them out in her head. “If I had to start thinking about vibration, it would distract me.” Also, she points out, there is a big difference in sound between the live band on the night and the recorded music played in rehearsals. Ayling-Ellis can hear some aspects of music, using her phone to Bluetooth it directly to her hearing aids (when, one day, she forgot to bring spare batteries, she and Pernice couldn’t rehearse).
Part of the pleasure of watching the pair dance was Ayling-Ellis and Pernice’s affectionate partnership. “Giovanni has been incredible,” she says. “He really supports every single step – and I mean every single step: even when I’m doing stuff on my own he, off-camera, is giving me timing.” Learning the choreography is difficult for a hearing person; for Ayling-Ellis, it must have been a giant task. There have been days, she says, when she has struggled. “There are a lot of ups and downs and some dances are harder than others. But Giovanni is such a good teacher, and he’s really adapted to the way I learn, rather than making me learn it in his way.”
Being on the show, she says, has “been life-changing. I try not to think about it ending too much because it makes me feel really sad.” How has it changed her? “I feel more confident. On the first week, I was really shy, but now I can be myself, and I definitely feel more comfortable in my own skin. The first week, I was like, ‘Everyone’s going to be expecting a deaf person to dance really badly.’” She smiles. “But I definitely proved a lot of people wrong.” When we speak before her eventual triumph, she says while winning would be great, “what is more important is breaking the barrier, proving that deaf people can do anything. I feel that I’ve achieved that, so even if I don’t win, I still feel like I’ve won.”
Since Ayling-Ellis has been on Strictly, online searches for British sign language courses have gone up by 300%, and one training company told the BBC that the number of people enrolling had gone up by 2,000%. She has had lots of messages from deaf people, and parents of deaf children, who have said how much watching her has meant to them. “That’s made me quite emotional,” she says. “It’s 2021, and, finally, they’ve got something like that. It’s really good that it’s happening – but why has it taken this long? I didn’t have that growing up, and a lot of deaf people didn’t have that. So it’s really nice that we’ve got somebody out there.” She smiles, and adds: “I can’t believe it’s me.”
She is thrilled that appearing on Strictly has challenged perceptions. “Hopefully, it will change the way people look at deaf people. That if they come for a job interview, they won’t freak out about it and will be more excited. I’m glad that it’s happening. We’ve been fighting for so long.”
Were there people who were surprised she was going on a dance show? “Yes, because I think a lot of people probably …” She pauses. “I think, for deaf people, the thing we have to live with is that people have such low expectations of us. So when you do things that are normal, it’s like, ‘Wow!’. So I knew that me being on Strictly, a lot of people were probably thinking, ‘How’s she going to hear music, how is she going to dance?’ I always felt like I have to give 120%,” she says, “so that I can seem capable of doing it the same as everyone else.”
Ayling-Ellis grew up in Hythe, Kent, and has an older brother; after her parents’ divorce, she lived with her mother. She had ballet lessons when she was a child, but not for long – and that was about the extent of her dance training. “In a home video, you can see all the kids with perfect timing and I’m trotting along behind trying to copy what they were doing,” she says. “I remember my first day with Giovanni, he was really shocked at my posture. He still tells me off for it.”
She was, however, a very creative child, “always in my own bubble. I love art and making things, and I communicated a lot with my family through drawing.” She wanted to be an artist. At school, she says, it was the popular kids who did drama. “And I wasn’t very popular, so I never thought about doing drama.”
At Ayling-Ellis’s school, there were only a handful of deaf students. “I didn’t get bullied, I still had a good time at school but I had to fight for my education,” she says. “They only had three notetakers, and [the deaf children] were in different classes, so most of them went to a classroom with no interpreter, no notetaker. My mum really fought to make sure I had a notetaker and interpreter with me at all times. I was lucky, but it was ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s a normal life for many deaf children – they are in mainstream schools with no access.”
The hard work was a real test, she says, “because that’s what life is going to be. You always have to fight for your access.” Not having to struggle for this made all the difference on Strictly. “I have an interpreter with me so I can understand what’s going on all the time. If I didn’t have an interpreter there, and I was trying to concentrate, trying to understand what everyone’s saying, I can’t be me, I can’t be myself.”
Ayling-Ellis remembers realising for the first time she was different from others around her, when she was around four. “In nursery, we had this special deaf unit. I remember playing with other deaf kids, and looking out the window and it was all the hearing children outside. I thought, ‘Why am I not over there? Why am I in here?’ I genuinely thought everyone was deaf.
“I feel really glad that I knew who I was from a very early age. I never ever once thought: ‘I wish I could hear.’ Because if I was hearing, I’d be a completely different person. I wouldn’t have the life experience that I have. I’d just be really normal.” She laughs. “I don’t want to be normal – that’s boring.”
Being part of the deaf community “is very special”, she says. “It is the one place I can be where I fully understand everything. In the hearing world, I’m constantly having to lip-read and trying to understand what’s going on. Sign language is so beautiful. It gives you a strong identity, something to be very proud of – the community, the culture. I love the deaf community.”
Ayling-Ellis’s family became involved with the deaf community quite early on, and her mother learned sign language. “They’re really supportive, and I love my family to bits, but I did feel, growing up, that I would love to have a deaf brother or sister, or someone deaf in my family. I was very lucky I had deaf friends and deaf people around me. But I wish I’d had a deaf role model.”
One weekend, as a teenager, Ayling-Ellis went away on a film-making course with other deaf children. She was interested in animation, but tried it and didn’t like it. “They said I should try acting,” she says. “It was such a safe space, so you felt really safe to be yourself.”
She fell in love with acting. She had been a confident child, “quite extrovert”, but had become self-conscious as a teen. With acting, “I felt a lot of freedom. And I realised I was not bad at it.” The director who was running the weekend, Ted Evans, asked Ayling-Ellis to be in his short film. But, she says, “I didn’t think it was something that I could do full-time – I didn’t see any other deaf actors out there.” Instead, she went to university to study fashion design, but kept acting with the Deafinitely Youth Theatre, and her career grew.
Ayling-Ellis did theatre work, and had roles in Casualty and the Stephen Poliakoff drama Summer of Rockets before joining EastEnders last year, playing Frankie Lewis. Up to this point, she says being deaf has given her an advantage as an actor, because she is usually always considered whenever a casting director is looking for a deaf actor. “The problem is when it’s not a deaf role – that’s where I’ve found it really hard,” she says. “I’ve gone for auditions and they’ve said, ‘I really liked you, but we’re going to find a smaller role for you somewhere.’ But why can’t I play that role, a character who just happens to be deaf? EastEnders works really well, because the storyline isn’t about me being deaf – she’s just a character.”
The conversation about diversity on television isn’t always that inclusive. “You see so many different races and sexualities – and it’s brilliant, it’s what it should be – but where are the disabled people? I can’t see many. It is changing, but very slowly, and in very small ways.”
What would it have meant to see a Rose Ayling-Ellis on mainstream TV – in two of the BBC’s biggest shows – when she was growing up? “A lot. It’s not just for me, but also for my parents. When they first had a deaf child, they had never met anybody deaf before.” For parents who may be anxious about a baby’s diagnosis, or not know what it could mean for them, seeing Ayling-Ellis might make them think, she says, “that ‘my child can do whatever they want to do, because she can do that’.”
Did she grow up thinking there was anything she couldn’t do? “I grew up knowing there’s always a way around things,” she says, smiling. “I just always knew that other people think I can’t do it, and that was a bigger barrier for me.” She has, with each joyous step, proved what she’s capable of. “It’s so much more than the glitterball,” she says with the immensity of her win still sinking in. “It feels like acceptance for a deaf person to achieve something like that. It means so much, and I know it means a lot for the deaf community, and for anybody who feels a bit different – to never think that you can’t do it, because it is achievable when you are given the opportunity.”