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Strictly Changing the Face of Representation

January 2021


On Saturday 18th December 2021 the BBC aired the Strictly Come Dancing Final and I confess to being on of the 11 million people in the UK who tuned in, anxiously awaiting to see who would lift the Glitterball Trophy. 

WHY WAS THIS YEAR SPECIAL?

 Over 18 seasons since 2004, 254 celebrity contestants have taken to the Strictly Come Dancing dance floor. In that time there has been only one same-sex pairing, Nicola Adams and Katya Jones in 2020, and of the 254 not one has been deaf. But in 2021 this changed, it was the year Strictly Come Dancing embraced representation. We were introduced to the first all-male partnership with TV Chef John Whaite and professional dancer Johannes Radebe. They excelled themselves each week, need I mention their exquisite Rumba to 'Shape of My Heart'

But it was Rose Ayling-Ellis I was enamoured by. Famous for playing Frankie Lewis on BBC soap opera Eastenders since May 2020, Ayling-Ellis has been deaf since birth. Partnered with Giovanni Pernice, Ayling-Ellis captivated audiences every week, holding her own against her fellow contestants. And for a contestant unable to completely hear the music, that is certainly remarkable. Each week she learnt her routines by counting the beats, feeling the vibrations and using her partner as a guide for the rhythm. Rose and Giovanni became almost faultless very early on and their Couples Choice performance in Week 8, which Ayling-Ellis dedicated to the Deaf Community made me, and many others realise that I was watching something truly special. The music decending into silence half way through the performance spoke volumes. 

WHY HAS IT TAKE SO LONG TO HAVE A REPRESENTATIVE FROM THE DEAF COMMUNITY? 

Over 30 seasons ABC's Dancing with the Stars, the American equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing, has had two celebrities who are deaf out of 351 celebrity participants. Oscar winner Marlee Maitin took part in Series 6 in 2008 before being eliminated in Week Six. 

 

It would be eight more years for another deaf contestant to compete. Nyle Di Marco, an actor, model and advocate for the deaf community won the 22nd SeasonIt take a further five years for Strictly Come Dancing to have this representation.  

 But is the issue with who the show chooses to represent? In the world of acting, music, sport and so forth, the pool of celebrities for Strictly to choose from is limitless. But there is a much smaller world of deaf celebrities for the producers to invite. 

 

2021 felt as if there was a shift in the overall representation of the deaf community. In the recent Marvel film, Eternals, actress Lauren Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America was cast as Makkari. In her scenes, she uses ASL (American Sign Language) and although her character is deaf, it is never directly referred to, it is just a matter of fact. 

In the recent Disney+ series Hawkeyeit was revealed that protagonist, Cliff Barton (Hawkeye), was suffering from significant hearing loss. We were also introduced Maya Lopez (Echo) played by newcomer Alaqua Cox, an actress who has been deaf from birth. Maya lead of a team of villains called 'The Tracksuits' and more than held her own throughout. In fact, Marvel has confirmed that they are in the early stages of a spin-off for this character 

Entertainment website STVPlus listed 880 television series entering production tin 2022. With this phenomenal amount of content being made, can there be any excuse for a lack of inclusion and representation moving forward?

 

DANCING ADVOCATE 

One thing that the 2021 season of Strictly Come Dancing made apparent is that representation is essential. Not just for those who identify, but to educate those who don't.  In the book Television, Globalization and Cultural Identities, author Chris Barker postulates that "When people from all backgrounds and abilities are included and welcomed, it encourages others to share their uniqueness." 


In October, the search for BSL (British Sign Language) online increased by 488%  proving not only is Rose Ayling-Ellis a staunch advocate for the Deaf Community, representing the 11 million people in the UK who are deaf or hard of hearing, but that her presence on a prime time Saturday night show is educating many others in the process. 


Strictly Come Dancing 2021 has already gone down in history by being the first final to have a same-sex couple and a contestant who is deaf.  But they were so much more than that. They were not just the identities they represented, they were immensely talented. They must have been to make it to the final, which is why this series was hugely significant. It just begs to question, where will the Strictly Come Dancing go in 2022?


This article was written in January 2022 as an assignment for my degree.


Images - Strictly Come Dancing © BBC

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