There weren’t any raised eyebrows in the Clifton household when young Joanne decided that she wasn’t going to have an academic career. It had to be creative, and it had to be dance. After all, mum and dad were former world number ones, and they ran (and still run) their own dance academy, brother Kevin was carving out a successful career in the ballroom and on the stage and her grandmother was also nimble on her feet.
“Better than that”, laughs Joanne, “my nan met my grandpa in a dance hall, and they hit it off immediately. The story is that they were engaged two weeks later, and married not long after that”. Dancing, then, was what Joanne Clifton was born to, and what she has excelled at.
Clifton is currently touring with a sell-out revival of the camp funfest that it The Rocky Horror Show, which heads to York next month, and later Leeds and Hull – playing the heroine, Janet Weiss.
Many people will know her from her time as one of the professional team on Strictly Come Dancing. She won the Christmas Special in 2015, where her partner was Harry Judd, and later won the overall crown, this time with TV presenter Ore Oduba. And then she took everyone by surprise. Not only by deciding to quit the show while she was on what looked like a winning streak, but taking off in a new direction.
It wasn’t the first time. Joanne, who hails from North Lincolnshire, was doing pretty well in the dance business, and even in her early teens was making quite an impact, and getting noticed. She had decided to specialise in ballroom, so that she wouldn’t compete directly against her brother, who was inclined towards Latin American. She’d started at the age of just four, and had notched up several championship successes. But, in 2000, she moved, lock, stock and sequins, to Bologna, in Italy. At the age of seventeen “and without a word of Italian”, she started training with Team Diablo, Europe’s biggest dance school.
“I don’t know where I got the courage from,” she admits. “It was a totally unfamiliar country, there wasn’t a single person that I knew in the company and I didn’t speak the language. That, I think, is what they call ‘chutzpah’. But I was determined, I’ll tell you that. I think that’s a streak that I have within me – I don’t like being beaten.”
Within a year, she was one of the leading members of Diablo (partnered with Marco Cavallaro and then Paolo Bosco) and she was “pretty good” at speaking Italian. Her time in Italy was a triumph. She and Paolo danced at the Kremlin, they were champions of the World Dancesport Games, and won the World Professional Ballroom Showdance Championships. Then at the end of 2013, Paolo decided to retire from competitive dancing and Clifton followed suit.
Those happy feet didn’t stay still for very long. Only months later, she joined her brother in the acclaimed Burn the Floor Dance Company, and found new audiences in Australia and Japan. “Just one of the really cool things about dance is if you are determined enough, and good enough, it will take you all over the world, to places that you’d never dream that you’d see.
“I don’t give advice, that’s not my way at all, but if someone comes up to me to talk about their career, and their ambitions, I just tell them that they have to be determined, and that they have to give one hundred per cent. Nothing else is good enough. If you think that you can go into it all thinking ‘Ah well, that’ll do’, I have to say that it won’t. ‘That’ll do’ is not part of my mindset. I go for the very best, every time. There are inevitable times when you walk off the stage, or the dancefloor, and you think to yourself ‘Not my best tonight’, but that shouldn’t be because you haven’t tried. Try all the time. I am my own worst critic, I know that very well. I say to youngsters ‘Have ambition. Keep on going, love what you do with a passion. If it gets hard and tough, rise above it. There will be bad times, everyone has them, but persevere.”
She seems to have the knack, she agrees, of being in precisely the right place at exactly the right time. “I don’t think that I realised it at the time, but Strictly was a brilliant platform for me” she admits.
Now she’s starring in The Rocky Horror Show. “It’s such fun”, she enthuses, “because it is completely audience-immersive. They know what is coming, we know what is coming, but every night is fresh as paint, and there are always surprises. Yes, I have been caught off-guard by some responses, and yes, I’ve collapsed with the giggles, but hey, that’s all part of the fun, and for me, the challenge. Everyone who comes just gets caught up in the atmosphere, and people let their hair down. It breaks all the rules of theatre, and for me, it is sheer exhilaration.”
She is, she confesses, not someone who knows how to relax. “I feel completely guilty when I’m not engaged with something. Possibly the most ‘chilling out’ that I do is to have a huge jigsaw in my dressing room at every venue, and I try to complete it before we move on. With the assistance, I have to add, of anyone who pops their head around the door. Everyone has to slot in at least one part of the puzzle.”
Despite the praise and recognition she doesn’t get recognised when she is out and about. “It happens a little when I’m out with mates from Strictly, perhaps, and people say things like ‘Oh, aren’t you...?’ but I lead a relatively quiet life otherwise.”
Was there a downside to Strictly? “Your private life can become very public indeed, that’s for sure, and the Press can be very intrusive – and also very inventive. A lot of stories that we see in the media and on social networks are just classics of invention and speculation. You have to learn to shrug your shoulders, and to move on. But yes, some of it can be unpleasant – as well as untrue, and when it hurts the people around you, well, that makes me very angry. No-one want to see the people you love upset.”
At the age of 35, she still has plenty of ambitions. “If you want me to name a role that I truly covet, it would be Mama Rose, in Gypsy, which has just been a triumph in the West End for Imelda Staunton.
“I was completely captivated by her performance. It was truly amazing, and I went and saw her five times. She is astonishing, it was a masterclass in entertainment, in acting and in getting under the skin of a character.”
It’s a role she would like to play, in the future.
“I am, I admit, several years too young at the moment to even attempt the part, but, if anyone wants to revive the show in a couple of decades, I will be first in the queue at the auditions,” she laughs. “How about that for forward planning?”
The Rocky Horror Show: Grand Opera House York, June 10 – 15 (0844 871 3024); Leeds Grand Theatre August 19 – 24 (0844 848 2700); Hull New Theatre, September 30 – October 5, (01482 300300).