JESSICA FELLOWES describes the joy of jiving while hard of hearing

As Rose Ayling-Ellis becomes Strictly’s first deaf contestant, author JESSICA FELLOWES describes the joy of jiving while hard of hearing

  • Rose Ayling-Ellis, 26, has become Stricly Come Dancing’s first deaf contestant 
  • Like Rose, best-selling author Jessica Fellowes is deaf but loves to dance
  • Here, she describes the how the deep throb of the beat is something the hearing-impaired can feel and how she finds joy in jiving

Strictly Come Dancing is a highlight for me in any year: I love the sequins, the dodgy tans, the silliness of Claudia Winkleman’s jokes, the campness of Craig Revel Horwood’s putdowns, the celebrities on their ‘journeys’, the brilliant dan- cers and the lumpen movers all.

But this year I’ll be glued to the screen more than usual every Saturday night because of Rose Ayling-Ellis.

The 26-year-old EastEnders actress is the show’s first deaf contestant. And from what we’ve seen so far of her glides in the group dance alongside pro partner Giovanni Pernice, she’s got what it takes. And yet, when she was announced as one of this year’s 15 celebrities, many questioned why she was taking part if she can’t hear the music.

Except for me. Like Rose, I am also deaf and I love dancing. While some of the lyrics might be lost on the hard-of-hearing — for years I thought Queen were singing about public transport (‘Another One Rides The Bus’) — the deep throb of the beat is something we hearing-impaired can feel.

As Rose explained to Winkleman on the launch show, you don’t only hear music, ‘you hear with body language, with vibrations, with the atmosphere’.

EastEnders star Rose Ayling-Ellis, 26, has become Stricly Come Dancing’s first deaf contestant

I was born deaf and wasn’t diagnosed until I was two. My parents were puzzled as to why their usually well-behaved child was occasionally very stubborn, not responding to calls in the park or standing very close to the TV.

I have worn hearing aids ever since. Without them, things tend to sound as if I am underwater and I can’t hear certain background sounds at all, for example, a song playing on the radio.

Rose wears hearing aids too and also needs a British Sign Language interpreter on set when she’s being interviewed — but not, significantly, when she dances.

I remember the epiphany I felt the first time I realised I could dance — more than just bopping around the kitchen with my mum. It was at my church’s youth club disco. I was ten years old. My dad and I executed a series of our favourite rock ‘n’ roll moves until a circle formed around us, clapping and cheering us on.

There was no stopping the jive then. When my best friend came around, we devised routines to entire albums by Abba and Madonna. As a teenage girl with the usual body confidence issues and social shyness, exacerbated by the difficulty of hearing people at parties, these cares fell away when I danced.

On Saturday afternoons, my gran and I watched Busby Berkeley musicals in black and white on BBC2 — I still fantasise about being a dancer in a line-up with a giant ostrich feather.

Jessica Fellowes, who like Rosa Ayling-Ellis is deaf, is pictured letting loose at a wedding

At 15 years old, I discovered clubbing and the pulsating thrill of house music, which helpfully only had a few lyrics on repeat. Dressed in a black catsuit with a fake Chanel bumbag (it was the late 80s, OK?), over the years my friends and I would regularly go to Legends, RAW, Camden Palace, the Fridge or Ministry of Sound and dance all night long.

When I got my driving licence at 17, I happily drove us as far as we needed to go to get to the best clubs and music. I never drank then nor took the pills that had hit the clubs in the 1990s. I only wanted to dance for that unique sensation of being among hundreds of strangers, feeling not only safe but in union as we moved to the same rhythm.

It probably helps that this atmosphere is something of a leveller: when the music is so loud, I’m not the only one having to lip-read or mime my words.

At 19, I went to Colombia for three months. I couldn’t speak Spanish but I soon picked up salsa, which made any language barrier disappear. There, everyone dances, almost before they can walk. In any ordinary restaurant, after the food had been eaten, tables would be pushed back, the music turned up and the diners would get up and start dancing.

At Edinburgh University, where it was practically obligatory to learn how to reel and drink whisky, I was soon proficient in both. I’ve had many a good night in a Scottish hall being spun to the Gay Gordons. All through my 20s and 30s, I danced every weekend, whether at a club, party, festival or wedding. I never went to the gym: I didn’t need to when I was burning off those calories under the glitterball.

Nor do I need fancy DJs and laser beams to hit the floor. Some of my best nights have been with just one or two friends, working through Spotify playlists into the small hours.

Being deaf is undoubtedly the reason I’m an enthusiastic dancer. Conversation in a crowded situation is difficult for me, even with my lip-reading skills and the brilliant digital aids I have today.

When I can’t hear what’s being said, I rely heavily on body language cues. This is useful on the dance floor when you’re mirroring someone’s moves, a classic way to help you both feel more at ease together. Then there’s the fact I long ago learned not to be easily embarrassed when I misheard what someone said or mispronounced words I’d only read but not heard. On the dance floor you need to lose your inhibitions and just go for it: to dance, as the saying goes, as if nobody’s watching.

The 26-year-old EastEnders actress is the show’s first deaf contestant. And from what we’ve seen so far of her glides in the group dance alongside pro partner Giovanni Pernice, she’s got what it takes. And yet, when she was announced as one of this year’s 15 celebrities, many questioned why she was taking part if she can’t hear the music.

There’s a picture of me at a friend’s wedding which sums up what dancing can do and it’s my favourite photo.

While in the taxi on the way to the church, I had broken up with my boyfriend — quite the timing — and was broken-hearted. But I also wanted to celebrate my friend’s wedding in the way she deserved. I couldn’t sit in the corner and sob. Instead, I danced — moving with full abandon as I lost myself completely in the moment. There’s even a happy ending: the boyfriend is now my husband.

My novel The Mitford Affair, describes how the protagonist, a working-class girl called Louisa Cannon, discovers this experience in a nightclub in London’s Soho in the 1920s.

For this generation, whose parents had known nothing more racy than a waltz, jazz was more than music: it was a way of life that broke down barriers.

As I wrote of Louisa: ‘Everything, everything, fell away and the only thing that mattered was to keep on dancing.’

That’s what music and dancing can do. Even when you’re deaf. I’m sure this year’s Strictly will be the best yet, and I’ll be cheering Rose on every week. And yes, you can bet I’ll be strutting my stuff every Saturday night, too.

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