Kevin Clifton: 'I Left Strictly For A Life In The Theatre... Then There Was No Theatre'

"I’m learning not to get my hopes up too much," the former Strictly professional says in our new interview series, 2020: The Year That Wasn't.

After seven years as a professional on Strictly Come Dancing, Kevin Clifton decided that 2020 would be the year he said goodbye to the hit series to focus more on performing in musical theatre.

He reasoned that he’d probably had the full Strictly experience during his time with the show – he’d danced with celebrities of varying dance abilities, and finally won in 2018, confirming months afterwards that he and his celebrity partner Stacey Dooley were in a relationship – and already had a few musical roles lined up for the year ahead.

Kevin officially announced his departure from Strictly in March, after landing his dream role in a touring production of Strictly Ballroom. However, it wasn’t long until things hit a bump in the road, and just two weeks after Kevin’s news, Boris Johnson announced that the UK would be going into lockdown.

Kevin Clifton pictured earlier this year, after landing a part in Strictly ballroom
Kevin Clifton pictured earlier this year, after landing a part in Strictly ballroom
Dave J Hogan via Getty Images

As part of HuffPost UK’s new interview series 2020: The Year That Wasn’t, we spoke to Kevin about how he and Stacey passed the time in lockdown, the future of the theatre industry and his true feelings about the decision to quit Strictly when he did…

Thinking back to January, how did you feel looking ahead to 2020?

It’s mental because in January I was looking ahead to 2020 with loads of excitement. Everything looked brilliant, to be honest. I’d just started in the musical The Wedding Singer, and I was doing that for just over a month, which I was really excited about. I loved the role, loved that musical.

Then I had a short break before I was heading into a short tour of Burn The Floor, the dance company that I’ve been involved with for years.

How did lockdown affect what you already had planned for the year?

After Burn The Floor, I was all set to move onto Strictly Ballroom, which was supposed to open in September. To be honest, that was the main reason I took the decision to leave Strictly Come Dancing. It was always a bit of a dream of mine to play that role in Strictly Ballroom.

I’d been in touch with Strictly Come Dancing and said, ‘if I get offered this, I’m not going to be able to say no to it’. So I got offered the part, said I was leaving Strictly for a life in the theatre… and then there was no more theatre. So everything sort of disappeared, or moved over to 2021.

I still feel like it was the right time [to leave Strictly Come Dancing]. Strictly Ballroom was sort of the catalyst, but to be honest, I’d been talking to [Strictly Come Dancing] about leaving for about a year. On my last year of the show, I said to them, ‘I am thinking about when’s the right time to leave’, because I’d done seven years on the show, and I sort of felt like I’d done everything that I wanted to do on the show.

Kevin with the rest of the male Strictly professionals at last year's red carpet launch
Kevin with the rest of the male Strictly professionals at last year's red carpet launch
Mike Marsland via Getty Images

In terms of different kinds of celebrity partners and different kinds of journeys you can have on there – there was the year that I won, with Stace, I had a year where I went out early, I had a year where it was a real journey from someone who wasn’t very good at the beginning who then got better and better, a year where I was dancing with a comedian, and everyone thought she’d be the sort of ‘comedy act’ but she did well, had another year where I danced with someone who everybody said was ‘too good’ from week one. All the different scenarios and different kinds of celebrities that you can get.

I said to them, ‘if I carry on for an eighth year, unless you go down the route of partnering me with a man, it’s sort of going to be a repeat of something I’ve already done’. I’ve just turned 38, I didn’t want to do it just for the sake of being on TV… and I wanted to try and chase some other things that I really wanted to do, like theatre, which I really love doing. So I thought, if I don’t make that step and go for it now, I’m just going to sit in my comfort zone, getting older and older!

Obviously it was difficult when all the theatre went away this year and I’m sat at home watching [Strictly Come Dancing] – but I still feel it was the right time. But fingers crossed that 2021 is going to be a version of what 2020 was supposed to be – for everyone in the world!

How did you make it work in 2020, and what are you most proud of?

When we first went into lockdown and it first became clear that we weren’t going to be coming out any time soon – and I wasn’t going to be performing any time soon – I sort of thought, ‘I’ve been working nonstop for quite a few years, and I haven’t had a break’.

I’d been saying for a while that I needed to take some time off, otherwise I was going to burn out. Obviously, you wish it was under different circumstances, but when it happened, I thought, ‘OK, well this is a bit of an enforced break’. So at first I took that decision to have a proper break, and not worry too much about anything, and do nothing.

Kevin Clifton says it was the "right time" to leave Strictly in 2020
Kevin Clifton says it was the "right time" to leave Strictly in 2020
Dave J Hogan via Getty Images

I suppose, the problem is, it’s that guilt that kicks in with everything. It’s like, as much as it’s nice to have a bit of a break, you then start thinking, ‘right, I’ve got all this time, I should be doing something’. You feel this need to be productive in some way.

So it’s like, ‘right, I’m going to write a book or learn Chinese or something’, and on some days it’s like ‘I’m going to try and actually do this’, and on other days, you say you’re going to do it, but you sit and play PlayStation and at the end of the day, feel all guilty about it.

In terms of what I’m most proud of, we got to the point once it was apparent that Burn The Floor couldn’t happen as its full production, me and my sister [fellow Strictly Come Dancing champion Joanne Clifton] decided to form a show that we could do, with socially-distant audiences.

So, we did An Evening With Kevin and Joanne that we did in collaboration with Burn The Floor, singing songs, dancing, telling stories about our career and all that sort of stuff, and we were really proud that we pulled all that together. And we went on tour! We were actually on tour for a week, until we then got locked down again. But I was proud that we got it up and running and got a tour in place.

What’s one thing that got you through lockdown?

Me and my girlfriend decided we were going to watch all the episodes of The Royle Family right from the beginning. And we just laughed so much at it. It’s things like that that kept me going, to be honest.

And you turn towards the arts in those moments, don’t you? In any form. You turn to TV or movies or those online streams of plays and musicals, you listen to music or you read books. Which is why the arts are so important, and I suppose that keeps you sane, just seeing the outpouring of love for the arts from everyone – when you’re not feeling it from the government, necessarily.

Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton pictured in 2018
Stacey Dooley and Kevin Clifton pictured in 2018
Gareth Fuller - PA Images via Getty Images

What did you find to be the biggest challenge or the lowest point of the year?

I suppose there were a couple of things here and there where you drag yourself away from the PlayStation for a minute, fight to get a project going and it gets to the point where you feel really awesome, and it gets cancelled. That’s what gets you down, and there’ve been a few things here and there where you start to feel really good about doing something and then there’s just another knockback.

We did a night on tour of An Evening With Kevin And Joanne, and just before one of the shows, we were watching TV, when Boris Johnson announced we were going back into lockdown. And I’m literally getting my mic on, getting my outfit on, standing in the wings, and there’s a producer there, and I’m going ‘what does this mean, what does this mean for us, what does it mean for the show?’. And they say ‘we’re going to have to stop for a month tomorrow night’ – and then, right, on stage, ‘good evening everybody!’. It’s those moments that are the most difficult.

What’s the biggest lesson you’re taking away from 2020?

I suppose when you’re in any situation where you find yourself with excess time on your hands, you reveal your true self to yourself. We all say things like, ‘I’m going to do this, if I only I had time’, and then when faced with time, the thing you actually want to do, is what you do.

You prove to yourself, ‘actually I didn’t want to learn Chinese at all, I just wanted to listen to this album’... so I think, if anything, if you look at it in the right way, it’s an opportunity to go, ‘it’s interesting that I spent my year focussing on that’.

And for me personally, it proves that if even if I were a billionaire, I wouldn’t want to stop performing. I just felt this need to do something, to get up and dance or sing or act or whatever. It just proved to me how much I do love it.

Kevin backstage at Strictly Come Dancing Live! in 2018
Kevin backstage at Strictly Come Dancing Live! in 2018
Dave J Hogan via Getty Images

How do you feel now looking ahead to 2021?

I’m starting to get hopeful, obviously with this news of the vaccine makes things feel a bit more do-able, I suppose.

I’m looking at 2021 thinking I can do all the things that I was supposed to do this year. Strictly Ballroom’s been rescheduled to open in September 2021, we’ve got Burn The Floor scheduled for the spring, the delayed dates of mine and Joanne’s tour are for January and February… so fingers crossed I’m looking forward to 2021, thinking it’s going to be a great year.

But I’m also learning not to get my hopes up too much, because things get cancelled left, right and centre, and the world’s just surprising us at every turn at the moment.

Kevin Clifton is touring the UK in 2021 in Strictly Ballroom. For more information visit the production’s website.

This article has been edited for clarity and length.


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