Joanne Clifton

The Interview: Joanne Clifton

The Interview: Joanne Clifton

The celebrity dancer and musical theatre actor Joanne Clifton on her career, raising awareness of osteoarthritis and childhood dreams…

On the rainy gloomy morning when we speak, Joanne is beaming with joy, even though she hasn’t slept well, recording her podcast late into the night: “We do it every Thursday, recording with someone from the musical theatre world or the ballroom dancing world,” she says.  

“We”, meaning Joanne and fellow ballroom dancer (and a fellow world champion), Tjaša Vulič. In their podcast, She’s Just a Dancer, they cover all the bases of being a professional performing artist, from goal-setting and the secrets of choreography, to discrimination, eating disorders and psychological pressure. 

Joanne, a World Ballroom Showdance Champion and a 2016 Glitterball Trophy winner, started her career aged four. A daughter of former world’s number ones, Keith and Judy Clifton, dance runs in her veins. Her brother Kevin is also a professional dancer, and a Strictly winner.

But professional dance wasn’t the career she dreamed about as a child. “When I was asked at school ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’, my answer was a lorry driver. And it’s still on my bucket list!”  

Clearly, this career path did not materialise, and in 2000 Joanne moved to Italy to train with Team Diablo, one of the biggest and most prestigious dance schools in Europe. “I spent 14 years of my life there. It was like a university of ballroom dancing, the training was very strict. We all had a personal trainer and have to do a certain amount of hours of gym a week. And then there were classes where we’d learn dance theory, anatomy, nutrition, and teaching methods. Physically, it was very, very hard but it led me to the World Championship, and then to Strictly.” 

And then, to musicals. “I have loved musicals since I was a kid. My dad, who took my brother Kevin and me to ballroom classes and competitions, always listened to the cassettes in his car. I particularly remember Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Both Kevin and I loved acting and singing but I did more of it, joined a local operatic society and dipped my toes in amateur dramas.” But in the end, she had to choose. “I chose dancing because it seemed safer – my entire family had been dancers, I knew lots about it. I was in the industry since I was four years old.” 

When she came back from Italy – crowned the World champion – and jumped into Strictly Come Dancing, she rediscovered her childhood passions. “I started training again, and I did a couple of tiny little shows. So I’m kind of just living out a childhood dream!” As a musical theatre actor, Joanne appeared as the lead role of Millie Dillmount in the UK tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie, played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show and even trod the boards as Marilyn Monroe in The Norma Jeane Musical.  

When lockdown hit, she didn’t give up on her creative endeavours. Together with Katya Jones, a dancer and Sasha Latoya, a musical theatre actor, they just, “sat at home with nothing to do. We’d have these long FaceTime chats over a glass of wine. And we thought, why don’t we just keep people motivated whilst locked down? So we set up these motivational online courses.” The courses proved a hit – “we had lots and lots of people coming in, so we did another one.” And so, they decided to put all the material into a book, and thus Beyond Lockdown Empire was created. 

But that’s not all. Joanne also wrote a musical with Ben Adams (of Eugenius claim to fame, and also Joanne’s Rocky Horror Show co-star). It’s called Bloody Nora, set in the 1930s and there’s a lot of swinging dance moves and toe-tapping involved. “We did readthroughs and worked with the director, mainly over Zoom.” She also taught classes and starred in a triple role in Pippin at the Garden Theatre. Pretty busy, huh?  

But when The Addams Family appeared on her professional horizon, that was really special. Although she hadn’t seen the musical before she auditioned, she literally grew up with The Addams Family. “I’ve seen all the films and the TV programme! Everybody knows The Addams Family”, she proclaims enthusiastically. So, when she heard the agent’s call, she was ecstatic. Ignoring everything else she simultaneously auditioned for, she dressed up as Morticia and headed to kick off the casting process. “I even said to the director that I realise that I look quite desperate that I’ve come dressed as Morticia but I am desperate! I really want to play the part.” 

She got the call back on the same day.  

“I just fell to the floor crying.” Then, her heart pounding with excitement, she got out her easel and canvas and painted Morticia. And now, she’s on tour, and heading towards Wimbledon, “which is nerve-wracking because it’s London! But it’s going to be amazing.” The cast has been touring since October with a pit-stop for a panto season – Joanne did Jack and the Beanstalk at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.   

“The Addams Family is such a funny show with the characters that everybody knows and love, with an amazing storyline and wonderful original songs. And the cast consists of the most naturally funny and talented people! Audiences are in for a treat for sure. Until I read the script I haven’t even realised how funny it was! A lot of it is for children, but there’s very much adult humour as well.” 

Joanne is very open about suffering from osteoarthritis, a condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff. “Actually, the more active I stay, the less pain I have. So in lockdown, obviously sitting on the sofa watching Netflix, it got a bit worse. But then, going into shows like The Addams Family, I was just very open about it from the beginning. For example, there’s this big tango number and I told the choreographer, Alistair David, to take it into consideration. And he absolutely did! That’s the message I want to put across: it’s all about adjusting. If you are a performer or a dancer diagnosed with it, it really doesn’t mean your career is over. It just means you have to adjust things and focus on the movements that you can do comfortably and without putting yourself in danger – and just doing them really well.” 

The Addams Family runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre from 15 to 19 February.

Image: Joanne Clifton as Morticia Addams in THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Credit: Pamela Raith