Pro dancers and Southfields residents Kevin and Karen Clifton have been gracing our screens again of late on Strictly Come Dancing, paired with celebrities Louise Redknapp and Will Young respectively. The Resident manages to sit them down on a break from rehearsals to find out about their plans to open a dance school
Words: Madeleine Howell
When I meet ballroom stars Kevin and Karen Clifton between rehearsals, they have an exciting new project to announce. ‘We’re starting our own dance schools in Wimbledon and south London,’ Kevin, 33, reveals with a smile.
‘Eventually they will be nationwide. We want to give kids a chance to learn ballroom and Latin dancing for the fun of it, without the pressure to compete. They won’t need a partner, they won’t even need dancewear – they can just come along.’
It’s a venture born from a love of dancing and a genuine desire to share it with others – a passion that goes beyond the glitz and glamour of the stage. ‘I was born in Venezuela and raised in New York,’ Karen, 34, tells me. ‘I started out on a dance programme that helped kids with difficult backgrounds. I didn’t really speak English, so I didn’t have many friends – but dance helped me to make friends and to build my self-confidence.’
I didn’t really speak English, so I didn’t have many friends – but dance helped me to make friends and to build my self-confidence
Dance has been a part of Kevin’s life since he was born: ‘I don’t even remember my first class,’ he says. ‘My mum and dad were world champions in Latin and they have a dance school up in Grimsby. If my grandma and granddad couldn’t babysit, they’d take me along and I’d join in at the back.’ The pair will also be performing at the New Wimbledon Theatre in 2017 as part of their live tour of the UK.
Through Strictly, Karen and Kevin have fostered tight-knit relationships with their partners and co-stars – so much so that Frankie Bridge and Susanna Reid were among the family and close friends who attended their wedding in 2015. ‘Not only are you teaching someone to dance, you’re also making friends for life,’ explains Karen. ‘For six months out of a year, it’s a very intense process in the Strictly bubble, so when you’re doing something outside of that it’s lovely that people still stay connected and that the friendship is still there.’
Not forgetting, of course, that it was through dance they met in the first place. ‘We were in a dance company on Broadway called Burn the Floor,’ Karen tells me. ‘We met there, but we started dating when the company came to the West End a year later. So it was definitely through dance [that we fell in love].’
It’s a very intense process in the Strictly bubble. Not only are you teaching someone to dance, you’re also making friends for life
What’s it like being married to a fellow dancer? ‘Oh, it’s awful,’ Karen jokes. ‘Not really – we share the same passions and it’s easier to be with someone who understands your schedule and knows what you’re going through.’
In terms of choreography, the pair have their own system when they work together. ‘We’re like-minded in our process,’ Kevin tells me. ‘When we’re rehearsing, we commit to the story first, and then figure it out, rather than fighting over the technical points from the start. Karen doesn’t usually like starting from scratch, so I’ll come up with something first, and once she’s got that to work with, she’ll adapt it into something awesome.’
Karen’s favourite dance is the Charleston. ‘I love how quirky it is,’ she smiles. ‘You don’t have to take yourself too seriously with it. I don’t like taking myself too seriously! It’s quick and fun and I love the 20s style, the music and the flapper dresses. And if I’m dancing with Kevin, I like the Paso Doble.’
At time of writing, the pair are still on a high from their performance at the first Strictly Prom. ‘We came away feeling incredible,’ says Kevin. ‘We were working with Jason Gilkison, Strictly’s director of choreography, and firing on all cylinders. Dancing with a live orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall was something we might never experience again.’ For Karen, it was one of the most amazing and nerve-wracking experiences in her career to date. ‘I’ve never been so afraid in my whole career,’ she admits.
Another career highlight was when they both made the final of Strictly 2014. ‘That was a big night,’ Kevin looks back. ‘We flew Karen’s mum and her sister over from New York. As a couple, it was really special.’ Talking of finals, after being paired with Will Young and Louise Redknapp respectively for the new series, we won’t be at all surprised if they find themselves competing to the very end again.
Another career highlight was when they both made the final of Strictly 2014, and after being paired with Will Young and Louise Redknapp respectively for the new series, we won’t be at all surprised if they find themselves competing to the very end again
With such a manic schedule of ‘dancing, dancing, dancing’, Kevin and Karen’s home in Southfields has been their sanctuary for the past four years. What do they get up to in their downtime? ‘I make fitness videos for Instagram at home,’ Karen laughs, showing me a clip. ‘I love fitness. I don’t personally like going to the gym, but I’m very active and I do Pilates. Moving just changes my state of mind and makes me feel happy.’ And Kevin? He’s an avid fan of Crystal Palace, of course.
On Sunday mornings, you might just spot them enjoying a rare quiet moment in the park. ‘We go to the coffee shop, pick up some lovely fresh croissants, and we’ll watch the swans and not think about anything,’ Karen says. ‘I love watching the families with their animals. And we go to the local butcher’s, which sell the best flank steaks. I fell in love with London when I first came in 2010 and I feel so at home here.’
Visit kevinandkarendance.com to find out more
Tickets for the Kevin and Karen Live Dance Tour 2017 are now on sale at kevinandkarenlive.com