In December 2016 more than 13.1 million people tuned in to BBC1 to see Joanne Clifton and her partner Ore Oduba lift the glitterball trophy in the final of the 2016 series of Strictly Come Dancing. For the girl from Grimsby it was a moment of triumph but it was also a stepping stone into her career as a star of musical theatre. Now she is playing Alex, the steel welder-cum-nightclub dancer in Flashdance The Musical, currently on tour across the UK and comes to The Bristol Hippodrome 25th – 30th June.
JUDE RILEY talked to Joanne about getting back at fellow Strictly pro, brother Kevin; her ‘talent’ for D-I-Y and how she feels about having a bucket of cold water tipped over her…
What’s your earliest dance memory and did you want to put on the ballet shoes and tutu or throw yourself into body popping?
My earliest memory is being at my mum and dad’s dance school. When they couldn’t find anyone to babysit us they used to take me and my brother Kevin along. We were just toddlers but Kevin would join in and as soon as he did I would copy him.
Then mum put me into ballet but I was just awful at it; they used to call me the ‘pregnant plug’ because I wore the little black leotard with the pink tights and I was one of these kids that the belly really stuck out! And I just looked like a little pregnant plug. No, I was absolutely rubbish at it and I hated it. So I stopped the ballet but I did ballroom, Latin and then we did Disco and little group dances. And then we started entering competitions when Kevin was five and I was four. Quite a lot of people think we’re twins but there’s a whole year and 11 days between us!
You spent a long time in Italy, do you speak Italian?
Yes, I went over to a dance school at 16 and nobody spoke English there so I had to learn very quickly and I stayed there for 14 years. When I came back I’d spent half my life there. It was my first language for quite a long time and when I came back to England in 2014 I used to think in Italian and I had to translate in my head back into English. I dreamt in Italian for about a year after I left. It still comes out in natural reactions – like if I bang my elbow or my knee I’ll swear in Italian rather than English, which can be a good thing if I’m in public!
Do you like Italian food?
I absolutely love it although I wasn’t allowed to eat much of it while I was over there. My male coach was Italian and my female coach was Russian so we were trained like the Russian ballet dancers and of course we needed to be slim. But that’s why I’m eating lots of it now!
And do you cook it?
No! I can cook two things: I can do poached eggs and pop tarts. But that’s a meal in itself isn’t it? You can have the poached eggs for mains and then the pop tarts for pudding!
2013 was an amazing year for you; you won the World Pro Ballroom Show Dance Championships, the World Dance Sport Games and you performed at the Kremlin. The Kremlin? How was that? And what are Dance Sport Games?
It was an amazing experience but they weren’t, like, the loudest audience in Russia… but it was great to be able to say ‘I’ve done that’. The World Sport Games are basically all the kind of sports that are not in the Olympics but are on the waiting list to be included. It’s always difficult with something that’s based on opinion rather than who crosses the line first or who jumped higher although Ice Dancing is in the Olympics so Dance could make it into it one day.
You joined Strictly Come Dancing in 2014 and won to massive popular acclaim in 2016 with Ore Oduba. What was your favourite dance routine during that series?
It was Singing in the Rain because I thought that was a turning point for me and that style is just my thing. The audience seemed to love the jive; I’m not keen on Latin but I’m glad they enjoyed it. But probably equal with Singing in the Rain was the ballroom show dance we did at the end. They’ve both got all that Hollywood glamour which I love.
Your brother, Kevin, was the first to congratulate you even though you had beaten him. But was there a little bit of sibling rivalry throughout the course of the show?
I mean… it’s a bit of fun. It’s more on my part. I’m more competitive than Kevin in general, in life. But he is my big brother and I wanna pay him back for all the wrestling moves he used to practise on me when we were kids but if he had a good week I was really happy for him and he was for me. And as soon as the cameras went off I went and said sorry because he’d been in the finals four times and not won and then I just came from nowhere and took the title!
Having left Strictly, you went into the tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Was Musical Theatre a new direction for you or a return to an earlier love?
I’d never really trained in musical theatre but I had private lessons in singing and acting when I was a kid growing up in Grimsby. I didn’t do anything for fourteen years while I was in Italy but since I came back to do Strictly I’ve been taking lessons again. Before Milly I did two other musicals on the fringe but Milly was my first big stage show. And I have wanted to do musicals since I was a kid. I absolutely love singing and I love acting and I like the excitement of the audience coming in and only knowing me as a dancer, sitting there and thinking ‘ooh, let’s see if she can actually act’!
Alex Owens is based on a real character who really did work as a welder by day and danced at night. Are you any good at D-I-Y?
I actually built myself a desk and a shoe-rack! The shoe rack was basically little pipes that you fit together at corners but the desk was wood and you had to use a screwdriver but I managed to make it. It is a bit wobbly and I got one bit the wrong way round so you can see the screw bit but apart from that I thought I did quite well.
Could you describe Alex in three words?
Passionate, focused and determined.
In Flashdance, you have to perform several dance routines that are so well known they have become iconic movie moments. How are you feeling about that?
Ahh, I can’t wait! Let’s do it! Yeah. I absolutely love it. I think the audience will get the same feeling as me. When the music starts, particularly Maniac and What a Feeling, even if I’m tired after a day of rehearsals and the director says ‘ok, let’s do it from the top’, as soon as that music comes on I get an absolute buzz and I can’t wait to do it. But in the script, for the Maniac routine it says ‘there are gallons of water’, well there aren’t gallons but there is water in a bucket and I will be pulling this bucket of water down onto myself. I am contemplating whether I should ask for the water to be quite warm or whether it should be cold because by that time, I will have danced. So I’m thinking, maybe cold water would be good… but then again, I’m not sure about the thought of a big bucket of cold water coming down on me… oh god!
You’re appearing in the show up until December, are you feeling fit and ready to take that on?
I think so. I’ve danced since I was four and been trained the hard, sports way in Italy; Obviously I am older now, I’m 33 and I’m playing a 19 year old but I know how to train for it and I know how to eat so that I’ve got enough energy but can look good in a leotard and, touch wood, my dancing experience will help me through it.
What is it about Flashdance that will really appeal to audiences?
Again it is such an iconic movie, such iconic songs and scenes, everybody knows Flashdance, everybody knows What a Feeling and everybody knows the Maniac water scene, it’s going to be great for those moments and I just say ‘come and see it’! And I am so grateful that I’ve got the role.