Posted on May 28, 2014
To mark Flash Mob‘s return to the Peacock Theatre this week, we revisit our interview with Kevin Clifton and Karen Hauer, first published in the May issue of Dance Today
“I get free fish and chips in Grimsby now,” says Kevin Clifton, musing on how his life has changed since appearing on Strictly Come Dancing last year. “People recognising us and stuff like that is very strange and it’s obviously come with different offers for dancing and projects.” He hesitates: “It gets you a little bit more interest to do what you want and perhaps people trust you a bit more than when you’re just some guy coming along saying, ‘I want to do this’… People listen to you a little more.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that “Kevin from Grimsby” still has both feet on the ground now he is a household name – after all, that’s one of the reasons he was so popular on Strictly. His partnership with Susanna Reid was the surprise hit of 2013. The pair were likeable, fun and completely committed to the dancing, which peaked with that paso in Blackpool.
“Everyone was talking about the importance of Blackpool and then when we finished the paso doble there was just a massive roar of noise in the building,” Kevin recalls when I ask him about the experience. “It was an incredible moment. One of my favourite other moments,” he says, moving on deftly, “was Dave and Karen doing ‘Moves Like Jagger’.”
Endearingly, as soon as Kevin has answered a question about himself, he bats the conversation back to his fiancée and dance partner Karen Hauer. When I spoke to him last year, he said of their relationship: “She’s such a nutcase: she’s this loud Latin American and I’m just a northern lad from Grimsby. It is quite weird when you think about it.”
For all their differences, there is a wonderful warmth and energy to the partnership; their rumba, “Burn For You”, on Burn The Floor was one of the highlights for me last year and Kevin’s proposal (which you can watch on YouTube) brings a lump to the throat. Their wedding will take place next year and they’ve “already started fighting over chairs and tables” with “the love sway from side to side” on the cards for the first dance.
Their dance backgrounds are quite different. Kevin grew up in his parents’ dance school, Cliftons Dance Academy, competing with his sister, Joanne, until 16 “when it started to become a bit weird”. As for Karen, who moved to the US from Venezuela as a child, she explained, back in 2012: “I always say dance found me. It wasn’t like my mum took me to ballet class. I was in a public elementary school and they were having auditions for this new programme called Arts Connection and I just remember doing a cartwheel… and landing in the splits. I was wearing jeans for my first dance audition… so that pretty much tells you my whole dance story.”
My enduring memory of Karen from last year’s Strictly is of her dancing in the Carmen Miranda hat. She laughs: “I had a bowl of fruit on my head and I was doing cartwheels and pushing a trolley: I did everything in one dance. He had the maracas and then he slid me on the floor. It was fantastic – I had such a good time with Dave.
“He brought out a zanier side. From the first day I met Dave I knew I wanted to dance with him. It was really magical… He brought everything out of me – the funny, the crazy [side]. I never knew I could be like that…”
“I did know she could be like that,” interrupts Kevin. “The year before she had a partner that did really well, Nicky Byrne – it was bit more dancing-focused – but this year we saw the real Karen come out – the craziness that I know.”
This week, Karen and Kevin star in Flash Mob, which returns to London’s Peacock Theatre with a multi-talented cast also including Flawless from Britain’s Got Talent, ZooNation’s Tommy Franzén from So You Think You Can Dance, and Alleviate and Brosena from Got To Dance. With Nick Winston, of Loserville and I Dreamed A Dream, as artistic director, Flash Mob showcases some of the talent that has emerged from television dance shows over the past few years.
“Flash Mob will bring together lots of dance styles – street dancers and contemporary dancers, some Irish dancers,” says Kevin. “There will be lots of things going on. We’re all getting to choreograph our own pieces in the show and also work together, so it’s a big mash-up and we’ll all be doing, for a couple of hours, some pretty relentless dancing. We’ll be doing our own numbers – me and Karen – and we’ll also be collaborating… different dancers of different backgrounds working together.”
Will they try the other styles of dance? “We’ll be sticking to our styles, but I think it will be interesting to see everything on the stage at the same time,” says Karen. “We’ll probably do a number with Flawless and I don’t know whether they’ll be able to do batucadas,” she laughs, “but it will be great to see a little bit of ballroom and a little bit of hip hop mixed together. We’ll see when rehearsals start. We’ll start working things out and see how we can mash it up even more… I don’t know if we can break and lock as good as they do.”
Karen and Kevin are enjoying the creative freedom. “It definitely allows you to do a little more of what you feel and what you want to put out there,” says Karen. “Strictly has been fantastic… it’s such a feelgood show and actually you learn a lot from all the other dancers and from your celebrities – how much you can push them and how much you can push yourself – so when you go and do your own thing it almost becomes a bit easier, because of all the pressure you’ve been put under. You almost feel a bit more liberated.”
The routines, which will cover both Latin and ballroom, will be “all completely new stuff”, says Kevin. “We’ve started choreographing in the last few weeks, just locked ourselves in the studio and tried to get as much done as possible.”
The rehearsals for Flash Mob start a week before Karen and Kevin return from Japan, where they are appearing again in Burn The Floor, where they met (and on whose stage Kevin proposed last year). “We’re in contact with everyone all the time and we’ll probably be Skyping while we’re away,” says Kevin. “We’ve got a week and a half to put it together when we’re back.”
The first act of Flash Mob sets up the narrative. Will they be playing characters or being themselves? “Pretty much being ourselves with a storyline that’s written for us,” says Kevin. “We’ve got to fit the dance into that. There will be different scenes where we’re all together at a club or a party or there will be scenes where people will be on their own.”
On the differences between choreographing for stage and screen, Kevin says: “On Strictly you’re choreographing for the camera and you have to forget a little bit about the studio and the audience in the studio. You’re choreographing for camera angles, which can pick certain things up. Also on Strictly you have a minute and a half of dance and you try to really impress in that minute and a half: you’ve got to get going very quickly and throw in some highlights and make things entertaining for everyone sitting at home watching.
“I think when you’re in a theatre you’ve got a little bit more time to let numbers breathe. People are not sitting at home wanting to be instantly impressed. They’ve bought a ticket for the theatre to watch some dancing, but they are willing to give you a bit of rope, to let the number settle in, let it breathe and I think you’ve got a little bit more time to do a little more. On Strictly it feels like: on your marks, get set, go, entertain, entertain, entertain, finish.”
Karen adds: “Watching a dancer while you’re there, I get more from it. Doing ‘Burn For You’ you feel a bit more of the emotion of the story that we’re trying to tell ’cause you’re right there with us. The cameras might take more of that intimacy away.”
On Burn The Floor Karen shone, dancing with a charisma and power the camera doesn’t always capture. I wonder how she feels about reality television after her own experience on the US So You Think You Can Dance. “The competition is intense,” she says. “There are so many fantastic dancers out there. You just have to put your best foot in front pretty much… It’s amazing to see how much people know about dancing these days, especially ballroom and Latin. But yeah, the competition is fierce and you have to stay on top of your game, because there are people behind you.”
How was it for her to have Kevin with her on Strictly this year? “It was fantastic to have him there and to see how well he has done for himself and how well he and Susanna did… It was lovely to see him dance; it was a great accomplishment.”
“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” says Kevin. “I think when we started the competition we were seventh or eighth favourite. We were mid-table.” (“Dave and I were first,” interjects Karen.) “Susanna worked really hard and as the competition went further and further I thought: ‘We might do all right here,'” he continues with typical understatement. “But that was down to Susanna: she worked ridiculously hard and she really wanted to do well.”
As for their partners next year, the pair seem open-minded. “You always think: I wonder who they’re going to put together and I just have no idea,” says Kevin. “I’ve got no idea who the celebrities are going to be. We were watching the Winter Olympics thinking: ‘I wonder if she’ll be on it?’ You start hearing rumours, but last year we were hearing rumours and they weren’t all on it.”
How does Kevin feel, as a British dancer, about being outnumbered by the international pros? “I think Strictly has a responsibility to bring the best dancers they can find to the show and I think they’d be silly not to. They just look across the world to see who the best dancers are. In terms of numbers, the competitive world in England isn’t as big as it is in a lot of countries, so I think if they’re looking for the best across the whole world it’s only natural they’ll find more who are not English than are.”
Which is not to say there isn’t potential in the UK. “I’d like to see more English dancers, as there’s a lot of talent out there. But it’s also not a new cast every year,” he points out. “OK, there were five new people last year and I got an opportunity, but the year before they only changed one dancer, which was Karen coming in, and the year before that they only changed one [Pasha]. It’s a very small opportunity.”
Speaking of British dancers, what is his sister, former European Professional Ballroom champion Joanne, up to? “She’s taking a break from competitions right now. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to continue or not. She’s actually just signed with the cast of Burn The Floor. All three of us are going to be in Australia and Japan. We’ll just do a couple of months.
“It will be great to work with Jo as well – she’s a ridiculously talented ballroom dancer. I haven’t worked with my sister in a long time, so that’s going to be really exciting and as soon as that’s finished we’re going to come back to Flash Mob.”
Flash Mob is at the Peacock Theatre until June 8.
Photographs: Christopher Mann