“I was constantly in motion. I didn’t stop for a single minute, and soon I was overflowing with happiness. I think it was the first time in my life that I felt free: the first time I thought, I know who I am. I have an energy. To this day, I still feel this same freedom when I dance. It was as if a light had been switched on. I had found a place where I was untouchable, where I could shine. Where I felt good and where I mattered.”
Strictly Come Dancing judge Motsi Mabuse is talking about her first dance class as a child in South Africa, in her new memoir, Finding My Own Rhythm and how she discovered a passion that would see her leave her home to travel the world, win international dance trophies, set up her own dance studio and become a TV star.
Always on the move, when we catch up Mabuse’s on a break with her family in the Canary Islands, before she burst back onto our screens in the explosion of sequins that is Strictly Come Dancing along with fellow judges Craig Revel Horwood, Shirley Ballas and Anton Du Beke.
Dressed for the beach, not a glitterball sight, Mabuse still manages to steal the show as she sits under a row of palms.
“Look at me,” she laughs. “I look like an adventurer! ”
Adventurer maybe, but in a Fendi bucket hat. Even dressed down Mabuse looks glamorous.
With Strictly back on screen, Motsi couldn’t be happier.
“Strictly is what it looks like. Fun.”
As well as her dancing knowhow, she brings an infectious enthusiasm as one of the panel of judges.
“For me on Strictly the most important thing is how I make people feel. These are amateurs who have never danced like this before, standing in front of an audience, and they’re very vulnerable. People can tear you apart on social media and things can become very intense on Twitter during the Strictly Come Dancing season. So it’s great to be there for the couples, to tell them what a good job they are doing. As a dancer who struggled her whole life to reach a goal, I know how hard it is for them.
“I always want to show them it doesn’t matter how bad it gets, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Even if it’s just a torchlight, it’s there.”
As well as meeting all the contestants, Motsi enjoys working with the other judges, each of whom has made an impact.
“Craig is the most professional person I’ve ever met. He knows his role, knows what to do. Shirley is a strong woman who can swim against the stream. She’s a force to deal with and lets people know it, and you have what she has accomplished. Anton just brings up fun in everything he does.”
And how does she think the other judges would describe her.
“They probably say I’m funny.”
The beauty of Strictly is it’s not about being the best dancer but about entertaining viewers, so someone with two left feet can win over the audience.
“Exactly,” says Mabusi. “I would say that the technically best dancer has never won the show. The person that has won is the person that has moved and touched the people, connected with them, made them feel good.
“If someone comes with a beautiful straight knee and still leaves the viewers cold, it means nothing. For me dancing is about connecting, with people, with your emotions, sharing things with somebody else, and that is something really special.”
Along with the glitz and glamour of Strictly comes the darker side of the glare of publicity in the form of trolling for contestants and judges, and Motsi has experience in how to deal with the negativity.
“You need to have a tough skin because you can never defend yourself enough really. The people never stop, so you need to take care of dealing with yourself and how you can protect yourself.
“Everyone should remember it doesn’t matter how shiny everything gets to be, there are humans behind the glitter ball.”
And as Mabuse knows, for every troll there are many more supporters and defenders, keen to comment.
“The best thing about Strictly is there are people that follow me that defend me and that’s a good thing. I concentrate on the people that give me energy. I don’t ever concentrate on the bad. And if I do get to a low point my husband is the best person to support me with that,” she says, referring to Ukrainian dancer Evgenij Voznyuk who she married in 2017.
And then there’s their four year old daughter, who can be heard off camera, laughing with Mabuse’s mother. Whether or not she will follow in her mother’s dancing shoes remains to be seen.
“She really likes to dance but we don’t force her,” says Mabuse. “She’s more about…” she says and laughs. “I really can’t explain my daughter! All I will say is that she’s very, very inquisitive and open. But dancing… we’re not putting her under pressure. I want her to connect to dance but I want her to connect to life!”
Part of helping her daughter connect to life is making sure there is plenty of travel to and from South Africa to experience the culture and life with her grandparents.
“She takes things in now and I really want to influence her so much with her South African culture so that she has strength in herself, because I feel that culture gives you strength.”
“I don’t want to put the ‘race thing’ on her. She says, ‘My dad was born in Ukraine; my mum was born in South Africa. I was born in Germany.’ She will grow up knowing she has every right to have her dreams and to want to be whatever she wants to be. It’s the same message our parents gave me and my sisters, even if our environment told us the opposite.”
And the chance to go on holiday with her parents is something Motsi treasures.
“Covid did a lot of things that people don’t talk about, so a child doesn’t see their grandparents for two years and that’s in the time when they develop emotions and connections to them so we have to go back there and rebuild this type of relationship. So now my mum is dressing my daughter and running around with her today and it’s good. It’s quite stressful for my mum,” she laughs, “but at the same time I’m like ‘take this opportunity to be a grandmum, full on!”
As well as the South African influence, Mabuse’s daughter is benefiting from having Ukrainian grandparents too, currently living with them in Germany.
“They are giving her so much. She speaks Russian with them and she’s confident. I love that about my daughter.”
For Mabuse, now 41, writing the book was a chance to take stock of her life and return to times and places in her life that were both challenging and celebratory.
“It was difficult to go back to a vulnerable space. But it also helped me to remember where I come from because sometimes we are so intense about moving on that we forget. It’s nice to just take a moment and say OK, I can be proud of myself.”
Born in 1981 in Bophuthatswana, an independent homeland near the Botswana border integrated into South Africa in 1994 at the end of apaetheid, Mabuse and her siblings, who include sister Oti Mabuse, a former professional dancer on Strictly, spent the early part of her life in a society segregated by race. Even finding somewhere to dance was hard and there were no multiracial partnerships. But her parents supported her every step of the way and the little girl from Block C in a township suburb of Pretoria went on to be a champion and TV star.
I always remember my father saying:‘Believe in yourselves.’ Thanks to him, we had the feeling that, despite our society being the way it was, we were free. Racism was constantly snap-ping at our heels, but we could outrun it.”
“It was quite intensive,” she says, looking back to a time where her parents could not vote and the races lived in separate areas, with violence breaking out on the streets.
“You look back and realise what it was like and what you’ve overcome. Growing up in apartheid formed me in always wanting to excel, always trying to be better, because you’re not enough. That comes from apartheid.”
“People like to say ‘oh, you’re using the race card or the victim card’ but I really want them to understand that institutional racism has consequences and makes people a certain way. Also it’s me saying to others, ‘you can go for your goals’. I want to say to people in South Africa, ‘come on, go for your dreams, find a way’.
In order to make it in the world of competitive dance, Mabuse had to head to Europe at 18, a leap that saw her rise to the top of the world rankings in Latin dance.
“I sacrificed being at home. That’s a big thing. I left all my friends, my studies at university, that space of comfort and that’s a big sacrifice. That’s what pushed me. I felt if I’ve given up all of that then it must be for something.”
Motsi is someone who doesn’t hold back, who will take a plunge, and in writing the book was determined to put her truth out there whatever the consequences.
“I haven’t spoken to anybody about it. Not even family. The book is a surprise to them just as it is to the world. It is what it is. I mean I’ve braved it out all my life so I’m going to continue to do that.”
“This is my perspective, my book with my view. Is it comfortable at times? No. Will it be comfortable for everybody? No. But this is how I saw it. I’m willing to speak about other views, but they asked me, right?” She laughs.
With her TV commitments, dance school and home life in Germany, Mabuse is always busy but as the title of her book states, she’s determined to find her own rhythm.
“My rhythm now is trying to understand my value to myself. We only have one life to live and I enjoy being a mum, I enjoy teaching dancing. I don’t need to prove anything to anybody. If you take everything away from me, if I have my husband and I have my daughter and if that is what is left, then I am a happy person.
“Attaching yourself to things that are not yours makes you unhappy because you want to hold on, and I’m at a point where, of course I will be disappointed if things don’t work out my way, but they are not me. The things that are me are my love for my people.”
Finding her own rhythm for Mabuse means no longer being so focused on the next goal to the extent that she couldn’t enjoy the one she had just achieved.
“My goal now is to live. To wake up, drink my coffee, be in my house, with my daughter and husband. Obviously the driver will always be me but I have told the driver, ‘girl you need to take a backseat now’. Other forces are in my life!.
“So I’m juggling that, juggling getting back to my people. But you have to earn money, you have bills to pay and I have to feed my child and make sure she’s getting an education, so it’s a balancing act.”
“But let’s not forget, I enjoy what I do. How lucky am I to LOVE what I do! And I love being a part of Strictly. And there is a kind of understanding that people love me for who I am. That I’m enough.”
Motsi Mabuse’s memoir Finding My Own Rhythm out now, is published by Penguin, hardback, £20
Strictly Come Dancing, BBC One, Saturdays, 6.30pm.