Rdares Ayling-Ellis to write history – and learn to vibrate. “It’s a lot of jumping off the ground, I’m going to be so out of breath!” Says the actor, who will be Strictly Come Dancing’s first deaf contestant when he returns this weekend. She has a few fears ahead of the dance competition’s return, namely the upcoming tango, and the shoes she is currently training in. She holds them in front of the camera. “See!” she says. “It’s so flexible, it’s like paper on a stub.”
When the 26-year-old was announced as a candidate for the BBC series in August, it felt momentous, not least because many still believe in the nefarious myth that deaf people cannot enjoy music or music. dance. Attending concerts with friends, Ayling-Ellis met hearing people who thought there was no point in her being there. “They think we don’t hear anything,” she said. “But hearing stuff isn’t just hearing stuff in the ear. It’s also visual, you watch the show, you feel it too. She regularly blasts soul music, Dolly Parton and Stevie Wonder in her car, and took hip-hop and ballet lessons as a child. An experiment with the recorder was less successful: “I played so badly that my mother forbade me to practice at home,” she laughs.
Pre-show nerves aside, Ayling-Ellis is a confident presence and, although she avoids caffeine, has a lot of energy. As a shy teenager attending a regular school in Kent, her passion for acting was sparked after attending a weekend class run by the National Deaf Children’s Society as a teenager. However, there were few models, says Ayling-Ellis, who uses British Sign Language and often performs in Sign-Supported English (a signing method that follows the grammatical order of English). After the school of fine arts, she completed her acting activity with sewing work. “I never thought I could play the role of an actor full time. I have never really seen deaf people on television.
However, a role in the BBC miniseries Summer of Rockets led to Ayling-Ellis becoming an agent, and his current role as Frankie Lewis in EastEnders. She joined the soap opera as Danny Dyer’s onscreen girl two weeks before the lockdown and made her mark via a series of dramatic stories, involving dark family secrets, a hit-and-run and a brief period of detention.
When she found out she had been cast for Strictly after a late-night shoot for EastEnders that lasted until 5 am, she was stunned and said she struggled to keep the secret; her mother was crying with pride.
Ayling-Ellis took the opportunity to appear on the show for the same reason the other contestants did – to have the best time of her life. But as she describes the structural obstacles that deaf talent face in television, it is obvious that she wants to use her platform to overcome them. Progress is being made, she says, but it is slow. And it is not enough to have deaf people in front of the camera. “You need more behind the camera, in writing teams or as producers and directors,” she says. “We still have to keep going and keep up the pace. We need people behind the scenes because that’s what makes the experiences of deaf people genuine and real.
On Strictly, staff have received professional deafness awareness training, including judges and presenters Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman. Professional dancers and producers have learned from BSL, and Ayling-Ellis will have a performer on set. While full of praise for the show’s commitment to accessibility, it’s also clear that deaf people deserve nothing less. “If you put the right support in place, have everything in place, then I can do my job as easily as anyone else.”
Ayling-Ellis wants to be the representation she herself didn’t see on screen growing up. Many deaf children come from hearing families, some may be the only deaf students in their school. “I hope this will give them the realization that they can have the career they want,” she said. “Nothing is impossible, and I know that many deaf children grow up in a society that thinks it is not possible. [for them to succeed]. But no, you can do it.
Her mission is therefore twofold: to return home dancing with the scintillating ball trophy, and to demonstrate that the deaf are unlimited when the barriers are dismantled. As well executed as his jive, or tango, turns out, it is this latter goal that can have the greatest impact.