Talking Strictly with Kevin & Karen

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Strictly Come Dancing’s back on BBC One for its 13th series, with Kevin Clifton & Karen Hauer re-joining the professional line-up to compete for the coveted glitterball trophy once again. London School of Salsa’s Lee Knights caught up with them at Pontins’ Pakefield holiday resort in Suffolk recently.

“We really enjoy Strictly,” says Kevin. “It’s hard work but it’s great fun. But when people start getting eliminated, it suddenly becomes a competition when before you were just having a laugh. Then, it gets serious.”

Karen agrees. “It’s so great to be back on Strictly. You have to give it everything you can. It makes you less selfish as a dancer, it’s got to be all about your celebrity and you hope it’s going to be enough.”

We are talking at Pontins’ Stardust ballroom, just before the evening bingo session. I’ve caught up with them after their rehearsal, watching them fly up and down the length of the ballroom effortlessly, laying out the bare bones of their shows, dressed in their civvies and performing to an empty room. Still, their connection shines out.

The couple first met on Burn the Floor, the launch pad for an array of Strictly careers. When they were put together for the first time, other cast members thought it would never work as their styles were worlds apart, Kevin recalls.

Born into a dancing family in Waltham, Lincolnshire, Kevin was taught by his parents, former World Latin Champions Keith and Judy Clifton. Later, he went on to become four-time British Latin Champion and win a raft of international titles. Karen grew up in Venezuela, dancing in bare feet on the beach to the beat of the drum. Moving to New York when she was 8, she trained at “The Fame School”, and became World Mambo Champion in 2008.

Despite their apparent differences, the couple discovered they had a lot in common. “We were both interested in dance as story telling and our connection happened naturally,” Kevin says.

The chemistry was there from the start, eventually leading Kevin to propose on stage after a performance of the show in London’s West End a couple of years ago. “Luckily she said yes,” he says ruefully. The couple got married in July this year.

Strictly sets a particular challenge, Kevin explains. “In competitive dance, you perform in a certain way to impress particular people. On stage, you are free to express yourself, you can do what you want to. On Strictly, you have to project, think about the cameras, the atmosphere of the room, direct your energy to the cameras.”

Karen continues: “All your energy has to go into your dance partner – they have to look a million dollars. You have show the character of your celebrity and put it into the choreography and the show.” To bring out the personality of celebrity partner “Hairy Biker” Dave Myers (2013), Karen accented fun and comedy. In contrast, to get the best from partner Mark Wright (2014), Karen choreographies were “young and cool”.

Making his debut on the show in 2013, Kevin and TV presenter Susann Reid scored an near perfect 39/40 with their paso doble, “Los Toreadors”. “You have to find out who your celebrity is as a person and capture them in a routine. Susanna is a strong woman, a confident woman; one minute she was training for Strictly, the next interviewing the Prime Minister. She has to be on her game. We talked about those feelings, brought that power into the choreography.”

To perform at their best, professional dancers too need to dig deep to find inner resources to overcome nerves and project out to audiences. Karen takes inspiration from powerful female entertainers, like Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Beyoncé. “These women are not afraid to be themselves, they are fearless performers, they have showmanship and power on stage. There is only one dance I do when I’m not being Judy – and that is the rumba; then, I dance as myself.”

Inspiration also comes from sitting on the sofa together watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the telly. “We’re like an old couple, watching the film and saying they don’t dance like that any more,” laughs Kevin.

Kevin and Karen have top tips for dancers who want to move to the next level. “Just enjoy it. Most dancers work so hard but the job is not to see the dance as technique. There’s no such thing as perfecting a technique – it is how to connect with technique in an emotional way.” For Karen, the key is making the technique your own: “Learning techniques is like learning ABC – but you have to create your own words. Something may not be technically right, but it will feel right to you.”

Kevin’s experience on Strictly has reinforced everything he believed in about dance, he says. “It’s about entertainment and story telling, it’s not a technical display as in competition. If it was, the public wouldn’t be able to connect with it. Strictly is about entertainment.”

It gave him a kick, Kevin says, when he got a tweet from a fan saying she had been inspired to dance by watching him and Saturdays’ Frankie Bridge perform their “Wicked” routine last year. “This means much more to me than abusive messages saying the show wasn’t a proper tango,” he confides.

Next Strictly Dance Weekend at Pontins Pakefield Holiday Park, Lowestoft, Suffolk: Friday 17th – Monday 20th June 2016. Book: 0871 222 0201 and http://www.pontins.com
More on Kevin and Karen: http://www.kevinandkarendance.com
Photo: Strictly’s Kevin & Karen, with Lee Knights (far left) and Club Cubana’s Cressida Childs (far right), photo by Mike Payne Photography.

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