In the depths of an inconspicuous west London dance studio, two of the country’s best – and best-loved – dancers are in the middle of rehearsals.
It’s the first morning of training for Strictly Come Dancing professionals Kevin and Karen Clifton as they start work on routines for their upcoming production, Kevin and Karen Dance 2018.
It’s their second nationwide tour in two years – although their situation now is rather different to how it was the first time around, as numerous headlines have laid bare over the past six months.
With their dog Betty looking on, Strictly’s director of choreography Jason Gilkison – who is also working with the pair on the tour – is walking and talking them through the steps. As the music kicks in, their high-energy, relentless number looks (at least to us) finessed; yet they only started on this routine a few hours ago. This is why these two are at the top of their profession.
“All the ideas are popping out and it’s really exciting right now getting all the choreography into your body,” Karen tells RadioTimes.com as the pair have a break in rehearsals over lunch. “I can’t wait until the full cast is in because that’s when we’re really going to kick off.”
Including Kevin and Karen, it’s a cast of eight – one of which is Strictly professional Dianne Buswell. “Dianne was a no-brainer,” explains Karen. “She’s a great friend and we’ve worked with her before.” In fact, the whole production is a very Strictly affair.
As well as Jason and Dianne, there’s assistant choreographer Patrick Helm who also works behind the scenes on the BBC1 show. Jake Leigh, one of the production’s dancers, also performs on Strictly every year.
“He’s one of the extra dancers when we’re allowed extras,” explains Kevin. “And he’s my lucky dancer, so I always have to request Jake every year. The number doesn’t go well when Jake’s not in it. I panic when he’s not there!”
The pair are relaxed and happy in one another’s company – even pinching food from one another’s plates. But as most fans of Strictly know, although still together professionally, personally they have parted ways.
In March this year, they announced that they were separating. The news followed rife and fervent tabloid speculation about their relationship status throughout the last series of Strictly Come Dancing.
“For us, we’d never been in that position tabloid-wise with everything that was being written,” says Kevin. “It had all been usually just nice enough stuff about ‘that one did a good dance on Strictly’, or something. That was about as far as it went for us, and we’d never really experienced paparazzi hanging outside of our house.
“I guess that’s one of the many reasons why we went ‘look, this is what’s happened and this is the truth’, just to stop everybody writing loads of stuff,” he continues. “Because there was a lot of things being written – and a lot of it was nonsense.”
Karen Clifton and Kevin Clifton on Strictly Come Dancing (Getty)
Many married couples going through a separation would struggle to be in the same room – let alone tour and dance together. However, the pair say it hasn’t had any negative impact on their performances.
“Not at all, actually,” says Karen, as Kevin adds: “I think we’re doing better!” They laugh together.
Karen also says that as performers, the chemistry is still there between them.
“I don’t think it’ll ever change,” she offers. “We always have fun and we always focus on the character and the storyline that’s behind it – and that’s what we do as professionals.
“Nothing’s really changed – if anything, it just feels like there’s this new energy between us which is quite nice,” she continues. “We’re both enjoying finding each other’s different personalities and different ways of communicating with each other, which is great.”
Kevin agrees. “There is something new about it.”
“At the end of the day we’re just two normal people,” adds Karen, “We just want to live our lives and be happy and support each other. And we’ve known each other for a long time and I think that’s really important that you keep going in a positive way. And are kind to each other.”
They both say that they didn’t for one instant consider not working together on stage after separating. “And it’s been done before,” adds Karen, citing Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace as a couple that they “look up to”. The former Strictly pros and Argentine Tango maestros were together for 11 years before splitting in 2007. For the next ten years, they continued to perform live tours up and down the country.
“They’ve had a very successful career together and it’s quite nice to keep that relationship, that professionalism and keep that positive energy and positive message,” says Karen. “Nothing has to completely disintegrate at all. But I guess that’s the thing that everybody just does because it’s just easier not to face each other, face feelings and just be truthful and real about things. It’s easier to hide and just run away.”
Kevin and Karen Clifton Tour (Richard Haughton)
“And I think because we have been just completely honest with each other and honest with everyone about it – everything in the show is going to come from in here,” Kevin says, pointing to his chest. “From a place of truth. I think artists or actors have to be real with what they’re doing. And I think we’re finding that very easy now.”
It would, I suggest, have been easy to continue the pretense of being together throughout the duration of the tour.
“I think that would’ve been more difficult,” says Kevin “And we didn’t want to treat any of our fans like that either. We didn’t want to do our tour and then afterwards say ‘oh and by the way…’ and have people think ‘right, so, you’ve just conned us then!’.
“There’s always going to be that elephant in the room,” chips in Karen. “Even with our dancers and Jason. But we want everybody to feel that we’re all on the same page, we have the same energy and that everybody’s just open about things. And that’s a good message to put out there.”
They both say they “hope” to be back for Strictly this year – but are so far yet to hear anything. “Fingers crossed,” says Karen.
Adds Kevin: “It’s such a great show and we have a great time every year. So hopefully when we get that call, they’ll still want us around. Who knows?”
Rumours are already swirling about the stars who could be donning the sequins this year. Asked who they would like to see on this series, Karen opts for the “awesome” ‘Body Coach’ Joe Wicks, while Kevin reckons it would be good to have Nadiya Hussain on the show.
“I love Nadiya!” exclaims Karen. “She’d be my best friend. We can bake together.”
“You just want someone that you’re going to get on with,” continues Kevin. “That is genuinely the first priority. Even before how good they are, you want someone that you know you’re going to have a laugh with and that the journey is going to be OK between the two of you.
“Because if you get someone who is a bit of a diva or are just not on the same page it can be a nightmare – and I’d rather go out knowing they’ve had an amazing time and we’ve got on than win the Glitterball although you’ve just had a horrible time and the person was horrible.
“Luckily, I haven’t had a horrible partner yet,” he adds. “I’ve had five nice partners!”
Kevin and Karen Clifton Tour (Richard Haughton)
He got on famously well with his partner last year, comedian Susan Calman. So much so that the pair vowed to get matching tattoos. Although neither have yet committed skin to needle, it is still happening.
“She wants me to [sign] in pen on her foot and then have it tattooed over,” smiles Kevin. “We just got on so well we just clicked from the beginning. It was awesome.”
Looking to the future, Karen says she’s keen to continue growing the dance school that the pair own together. Kevin says that as well as running his property investment business with a friend he’s also “exploring” what else he might want to do.
“I’m doing a lot of classes in lots of different things,” he says, “So I’d like to delve more into that as well as just dancing.” One of these things includes having singing and acting lessons alongside his sister and former Strictly Come Dancing champion Joanne Clifton.
Although he says he “wouldn’t rule out” a return to musicals (pre-Strictly, he starred in Dirty Dancing in the West End in 2010), he also has classical aspirations.
“I’ll tell you what I’m really enjoying,” says Kevin, lighting up. “I’ve been doing some Shakespeare acting classes – and I really enjoyed it. I never thought that would be something I would say, but I am.”
So is a part in a Shakespearean play going to be his next move?
“I mean, that’d be awesome,” he laughs. “But I’ve probably a long way to go yet!”
Kevin and Karen Dance 2018 begins a two-month UK tour on 22 May in Northampton. Details and tickets at www.kevinandkarenlive.com