Posted on August 23, 2012
Thirty-year-old Karen joins “Strictly” fresh from Jason Gilkson’s hugely successful stage show Burn The Floor (pictured above by Beytan Erkman), which has gained a reputation over the years for being something of a “Strictly” pro training camp.
The Venezuelan-born dancer joined the show in December 2009, following a stint on “So You Think You Can Dance” in the US. “When I first joined Burn The Floor I was partnered with Artem [Chigvintsev, pictured with Karen below],” she says. “We were dance partners for about nine months until we got to the West End and he joined ‘Strictly’ – and I know Robin [Windsor] as well; we were all in the company together. It’s great, you know, it’s like a little machine for making dancers.”
As for why Burn The Floor dancers are so successful on “Strictly”, she says: “All dancers are committed, but from what I’ve seen from two years of being in the company we worked twenty-four/seven 365 days. I mean it’s non-stop for us. There’s nothing like, ‘This is too hard.’ It’s never too hard.
“Whether you’re sick, whether you’re hurting, whether you don’t want to do it, you still go out there and you do it; you perform and you love it. The most joyful part is seeing the reaction of the audience. I just find Burn The Floor dancers to be machines. We have wings on our feet.
“Once we go on shows like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ or ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, it’s not just 2,000 people, it’s millions of people who can see – people who don’t go to the theatre, people who can see what else we can bring to the table. It’s a joy, really; it’s a joy to have come from Burn The Floor.”
Another toughening experience was Karen’s time on season six of the US “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2009. “It was a lot of work,” she says, “and doing a show on television like that is tough, it toughens you up. You have to be extremely strong mentally, physically and, you know, it’s something that goes by so quick that you have to make sure you are aware of everything all the time so you don’t miss anything. Nothing passes you by.”
Did she enjoy it? “I loved it. It was great. It was hard work. I’ve never had anxiety in my life, but I did for three months… Again, you have to really push yourself and it drives you over the limit. It’s extremely hard work, but it’s worth it. I’ve never been [more] glad to do something like that. I loved every minute of it.
“I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights and I’ve cried, but, you know, it’s a dancer’s life. Dancers go through tough times and it’s a very tough field, but I loved it. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”
“Strictly”, Karen says, has always been on her mind. “It’s such a popular show for all dancers and for the public to see how dance can influence your life in such a positive way. For me, dancing since I was eight years old, it’s always been a dream to dance on stage, dance on television… now I’m on “Strictly” it’s a little – big, huge dream come true… [The format] originated in the UK, which is great. It’s awesome to go where it originally came from.”
Karen moved from Venezuela to the US as a child, where “I always say that dance found me,” she says. “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.” So she’s happy performing then? “Yeah,” she smiles.
“They picked me and from there I just flourished – I loved it. I had issues at home with my parents separating and I just felt like I escaped into a world where I could really take out my emotions and whatever I was feeling at the time. I was eight years old… and I didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling with my parents separating and I just felt like I could get away and get into my own little world of dance.”
Karen went on to get a full scholarship to the Martha Graham School. “Then I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts, the Fame school, and from there I started competing in ballroom dancing. I went to a cha cha class and I never looked back. The cha cha heels just took over.”
In 2008, Karen won the World Mambo Championship. “It’s an awesome, awesome dance, full of Latin flavour and movement of the upper body and hips. I love this dance. You know, I can never pick one dance that I love, because I love all of them, but it’s in the top three for me.”
What are the other two? “I love cha cha and I love paso doble. I just love all the characteristics of the dances and the different emotions you can put into them. It’s not just about being sexy. Sexy is overrated. I feel like you have to be more than just sexy to be a true ballroom dancer.” (Cue another internal cheer from me.)
As for whether her Latin roots have helped with her dancing, she says: “When I was a little girl, my family used to have all these parties and I remember being on the dancefloor with my mum – she loves to dance – and I remember her telling me that she wanted to be a dancer. But her family didn’t have the funds for her to get to do that. All of that energy went into me. She comes to all my competitions. If she can watch all of my performances she will. On ‘Strictly’ she’ll be the first one in line waiting to get in.”
Nor will Karen’s mum be her only supporter. Her boyfriend, Kevin Clifton, her dance partner on Burn The Floor, is also a Brit. Who would be her ideal partner on the show? “As long as he doesn’t drop me on my head, then we’re cool,” she laughs.
“It’s hard to dance. Everybody should be able to move and that’s what I want to put across – everybody is able to move once taught how to feel uninhibited. It’s not about ‘Oh my god, I have to point my foot and I have to do this.’ We want to entertain the audience, but it’s about how we create that connection, that chemistry. Yeah, I’ll help them twinkle their feet, definitely. Plus, it’s a competition: who doesn’t want to win?”
As for the judges, “I love them, they’re great,” Karen deadpans, adding: “Everyone has their own tastes. I feel like Len is very specific about posture and footwork, and Bruno’s a bit more about the characteristics of the dance and how sexy you look, the passion between you, the chemistry.
“And, well, Darcey, will she be more about the actual performance? I’m very excited to see what she’s going to bring to the show as well. She’s an amazing, amazing dancer. I’m super-excited – I’ll be like: could you sign my shoe? But I’m definitely looking forward to performing in front of the judges. There’s no such thing as bad criticism – it’s all constructive.”
Karen’s passion for Latin and ballroom is undeniable: “Just to say that I love to dance is not enough. It’s too few words to describe the meaning of dance for me.” Even the Argentine tango, a dance she knows less well than the competition ten, presents a happy challenge. “It’s not something I’ve concentrated on, but if you tell me to do it right now, I could definitely make you believe that I’ve been doing it for ages.” I’m sure she could.
“Strictly Come Dancing”returns to BBC1 on September 15.
Photograph: Beytan Erkman