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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Cathy Reay

Ellie Simmonds on Strictly smashes prejudices about what a dancer can be

Nikita Kuzmin and Ellie Simmonds
‘My heart soared seeing her on screen, made up to the nines and looking absolutely incredible.’ Nikita Kuzmin and Ellie Simmonds. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

I really hyped up Strictly Come Dancing to my kids this year. In advance of the launch show on Friday, we bought popcorn, lit candles and piled the duvets on to the sofa. Maybe this sounds like overkill, but if you were watching a nationally televised dancing competition that, for the first time in its history, was featuring someone who looked like you, wouldn’t you be a bit excited?

As the show blasted on to our screen with its familiar upbeat theme tune, I was immediately reminded of the glitz and glamour of the production, and my heart soared seeing Ellie Simmonds on screen for the first time, made up to the nines and looking absolutely incredible. The genetic makeup of Strictly Come Dancing is heavily rooted in the beauty of bodies and their movement, and she so seamlessly fitted in from the moment she appeared. It felt like a huge moment for people like us, who aren’t typically celebrated for being beautiful or rhythmic.

The shot switched to Simmonds speaking to camera and one of the first things she said was “I have dwarfism …” – the rest of her sentence was obfuscated by my daughter excitedly yelling “I HAVE DWARFISM TOO!” Suddenly my kids were transfixed, cheering every time she appeared, and they haven’t stopped talking about it since. It lit a fire in their bellies I have rarely seen before.

People like to play down the impact representation has, but for those whose body types are never shown in certain contexts, it can be incredibly powerful to see someone like us participating in something we might have otherwise deemed impossible, because there are no prior examples to draw from.

Strictly Come Dancing has historically been pretty good at inviting disabled people on to the dancefloor. Lauren Steadman, JJ Chalmers and Jonnie Peacock all appeared on earlier series. Last year, Rose Ayling-Ellis went on to win the competition, smashing any preconceptions people may have previously had about Deaf people dancing.

Already, Simmonds has said that she has received abuse on social media from naysayers who appear to feel threatened by her presence on the show and take umbrage that she should be allowed to participate in a national competition alongside people of average height. These people are missing the point. Yes, Strictly is a competition centred on how well you can dance according to a set of pre-existing rules and conditions, which by nature automatically excludes many disabled people simply because our bodies don’t work in the same way. But it is also – as dance should be – a celebration of the freedom of expression. Adapting dances for bigger bodies, disabled bodies and bodies that don’t move in the ways we expect them to is beautiful, meaningful and so impactful to those watching who may feel they don’t fit the mould of how a dancer should look or perform.

Speaking as someone with zero expert knowledge of dance, Simmonds’ performance seemed exceptional. But even if I didn’t think that, I would still feel the same sense of pride watching her. For me, it’s not about how well she dances, it is about the fact that she is even there, having a go. The awareness she brings in being a dancer that requires adaptations is fantastic, and the inclusion she brings in being a person who is in her own right completely deserving of this space is long overdue.

Good luck Ellie – so many of us are rooting for you.

  • Cathy Reay is a disabled author, editor and speaker on the subjects of disability justice, accessibility, relationships and single parenthood

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