‘Strictly Come Dancing’ star Joanne Clifton will take the lead role in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ when it heads to the Liverpool Empire in February.
Fresh from winning the 2016 series of hit BBC show Strictly alongside contestant Ore Oduba, the professional dancer speaks to Your Move about her glittering career, preparations for the tour of the musical theatre production and her hopes for the future.
Interview by Matthew Smith
How did you get started in dancing?
I come from a dancing family. My grandparents were dancers, my auntie was a dancer and my parents were British Latin-American champions. And of course my big brother Kevin is a former youth world number one and four-time British Latin champion who has also won International Open titles as well, so I couldn’t really see myself doing much else.
Myself and Kevin were tutored in ballroom by our parents from a young age.
When Kevin started to go to classes and take lessons at their dance school in Grimsby, The Clifton Dance Academy, I just copied everything he did, but out parents never pushed us into it.
We’d dance and enter competitions but it got weird – dancing a rumba and trying to be romantic was awkward, so we split up. He decided to specialise in Latin and I chose the ballroom route.
I was unsure of whether to do musical theatre or carry on dancing but my parents couldn’t afford both. They told me they’d support me in whatever I decided to do, but it was either one or the other.
Ultimately, I chose dancing and partnered with an Italian boy.
I moved to Italy when I was 16 to attend Team Diablo Academy – an elite academy for ballroom and Latin-American dancing – and stayed for 14 years. I returned to the UK in 2014 and continued my singing and acting lessons, competed in Strictly Come Dancing and pursued my musical theatre career.
“I’ve always wanted to do musical theatre as a kid but I chose dancing instead so my life has essentially gone full circle. “
How did your experience at the leading Team Diablo Academy allow you to develop as a dancer?
It’s the biggest ballroom and Latin dance school in the world now.
I actually saw someone from that dance school competing in Blackpool and at the time I really liked the style of their dancing and so I went over to Italy with my dad, partnered with a boy and ended up staying there for 14 years.
The training was quite rigid as my Italian and Russian coaches were very strict.
It was more like a university of dance and there is clearly a difference between dancing in the UK and dancing in Italy.
Here, dance couples have lessons with their teachers and choose which competitions to enter and which dresses and hairstyles to wear.
In Italy, our coaches put us on diets and told us which competitions to enter and which type of dresses and hairstyles to choose. It was very, very strict.
Not only did we concentrate on the physicality of dance but we also learned about dance. Every week we’d have one day when we would work at desks to learn and understand the theory of dance. It was a very rigorous process.
We practiced seven days a week to remain competitive with our rivals and only had four days off each year to ensure our muscle memory remained fresh.
We’d be in the studio from 8:30am-11pm and our training consisted of technique lessons, working out in the gym and working with our partners.
It was hard work but it got me to where I am now so I can’t thank the school enough.
At which point did you realise you could go right to the top in your profession?
I’m quite competitive and I always believed I could achieve my potential. I would always try my best.
After 11 years in Italy my dance partner and I had been in the semi-finals of the world championships for six years. I just kept training and I would practice by myself, even if my partner didn’t want to practice.
The six-time world champion then asked me to dance with him so I did and that’s how I won my title.
You’re starring in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ at the Liverpool Empire this month alongside Michelle Collins. Can you tell us more about the show and what it means to you to be a part of such a successful musical?
I’m living out a childhood dream! Like I said, I’ve always wanted to do musical theatre since I was a kid but I chose dancing instead so my life has essentially gone full circle.
I’ve had private lessons in singing and acting and I’ve done two other smaller musicals – one called ‘Face the Music’ (2015) and another one called ‘Norma Jean the Musical’ (2016).
I think the ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ producers came to see the Norma Jean production and that was when they contacted me about auditioning for the part of Millie.
It’s a role that I’ve always wanted to play because Millie is a small town girl from Kansas, leaves everything behind and takes herself off to New York to pursue her dreams and that’s exactly what I did. I took myself off and went to Italy to pursue my dreams, so I can relate to the character and draw parallels with my own experiences.
“When we were named 2016 ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ champions you could tell by our faces that we had no idea we would win.”
What made you want to swap the ballroom for the stage now and is this an area you want to continue to work in?
I’d love to! I feel like I have achieved what I wanted to accomplish in dance and in the ballroom in particular. I became a world champion in 2013 and European champion in 2012 and I’ve also won Strictly so now I think my next challenge will be musical theatre.
I’ve got the UK tour now so my next goal would be to gain a role on the West End, but I need to work hard for that.
I don’t know what you have to do to get into a production on the West End but all I’m going to do whilst I’m on tour is keep training as much as I can, continue my singing and acting lessons and try my best until I’m good enough.
You recently won the 14th series of Strictly Come Dancing with Ore Oduba. What did it mean to you to win the competition?
To be on Strictly is an absolute honour. It is the biggest and best show on TV and it’s such a great family show that everyone loves at any age so to already be on it is fantastic.
I don’t think myself or Ore expected to win the competition at all.
Our initial goal was to get to Blackpool, but once we reached that goal we then just kept going further and further in the competition.
When we got to the final we were against Danny [Mac] and Louise [Redknapp] who were really good. We had been in the dance off many more times than them so we knew it would be difficult so we went out onto the floor with the intention of having a good time. We called ourselves Team OJo and decided to show everyone what we could do.
When we were named 2016 ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ champions you could tell by our faces that we had no idea we would win.
In a career of tremendous success, what’s been the highlight and is there anything else you would like to accomplish?
I’ve had quite a few career highlights really.
I won two British championships with my brother and that was obviously really special.
Another highlight is my world championship victory in 2013 because that’s what I worked all my life to achieve.
Winning Strictly with Ore, who started out having had no training in dance, is another highlight because we went through so much together.
I also have to say that dancing the samba to ‘Under the Sea’ with Scott Mills is another highlight because people still talk about that.
I tend to have goals in my head of what I want to achieve in the future and I continue to make those kinds of goals.
If I can manage to gain a role in the West End then I’ll make a new goal, whether that is settling down and starting a family or pursuing roles in the West End or on Broadway. At the moment I’m very much looking forward to performing as Millie in the UK tour of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’.
‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ will be at the Liverpool Empire from 20-25 February.