Strictly Come Dancing is my hands-down favourite winter warmer. When it’s too cold to be bothered to go out on a Saturday night, it has it all: excessive sequins, Claudia Winkleman and a selection of obscenely fit and talented people. But Sunday night’s results show had something else: a group of breathtaking disabled dancers.
The Candoco Dance Company, which is made up of disabled and non-disabled dancers, opened the show with some of the series-regular professionals. Blending Candoco’s contemporary dance style with ballroom and Latin, and choreographed by former Strictly judge Arlene Phillips, a wheelchair user seamlessly moved in time with amputees and non-disabled peers. It was all set to David Bowie’s Life On Mars?, and the routine was mesmerising.
As a disabled girl growing up in the 1990s, I can count on my thumbs the number of times I saw disability on-screen. In 2018, it’s still incredibly rare to see disabled performers on mainstream TV. When we do, it’s often for a charity appeal – which, with the best will in the world, can leave a patronising taste in the mouth. Other times, it might be trumpeted under the label of “inclusion” – that seemingly positive term that, in reality, can end up focusing more on someone’s disability than the fact they’re “included” due to their talent.
But on Sunday, Strictly gave us something different. It simultaneously managed to unapologetically put disability front and centre – all without making a fuss. Here, disabled dancers just happened to be performing alongside non-disabled people. On the biggest entertainment show on TV, disabled dancers were owning the floor, without anyone going on about “inclusion”.
This sort of progress comes slowly, as Strictly itself knows. Back in 2010, BBC Three ran Dancing On Wheels, in which celebrities including Caroline Flack and Mark Foster danced with a wheelchair user to compete to enter the Wheelchair Dance Sport European Championships. It was a good start but, ultimately, the message appeared to be: non-disabled celebrities and professionals get to feature on the premier show of Strictly, while disabled people have to be segregated on the side vehicle.
It’s no coincidence that the critics who say representation doesn’t matter are generally people who are used to seeing themselves always represented
By series 15, Paralympian Jonnie Peacock became the first disabled person to get a place on the main Strictly show. Peacock said a big motivation in accepting the job was challenging perceptions of disability. “I wanted to go out there, show a blade one week and show kids that it can be cool,” he told The Telegraph at the time. “But I also wanted to put a pair of trousers on and, to people who perhaps don’t know me, make them question which person was the disabled one.”
It wasn’t perfect – when Peacock was voted off the show, presenter Tess Daly and his co-stars brought out the dreaded “inspiration” card to describe him – but it was a turning point in producers realising the importance of an inclusive cast. This year has seen both Katie Piper, who has disabilities after an acid attack, and Paratriathlete Lauren Steadman, who was born missing her lower right arm, compete.
It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as irrelevant – to say that a few disabled people on a dancing competition can’t make a difference. But it’s no coincidence that the critics who say representation doesn’t matter are generally people who are used to seeing themselves always represented. For those who are routinely excluded from popular culture, such as ethnic minorities and women, visible representation can be vital; something that’s particularly precious when you’re growing up and working out your identity and place in the world.
This month, Catastrophe actor Rob Delaney read a CBeebies Bedtime Story using Makaton – signs that are based on the gestures used in sign language and are used by children with learning or communication difficulties. You only have to look at disabled kids’ reactions on social media to see the utter joy such a simple thing can bring.
This week, because of Strictly, there will be disabled boys and girls across the country who woke up with the image of disabled dancers on TV. These kids will now get to go to school daydreaming of wheelchair users and amputees twirling to music for the crowd. So, thank you, Strictly, for not underestimating what it means to watch people like yourself lighting up the television screen.