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Motsi Mabuse: ‘I don’t like dance competitions. I have a real anxiety about them now’

Her parents thought that dancing was just a hobby and that she would become an engineer, but the Strictly judge had other ideas

Motshegetsi ‘Motsi’ Mabuse was born in South Africa, and grew up in Pretoria, where she studied engineering at university. A talented dancer, she took part in national and international championships, before moving to Germany, where she found fame on 2007’s season of the TV show Let’s Dance. She competed again in 2010 and, from 2011 became a judge.

In 2017, she made her first appearance on Strictly, replacing judge Darcey Bussell. Ahead of the latest series, and with a new book coming out, in a Letter To My Younger Self Mabuse recalls growing up in a segregated South Africa, and how she used dance as a means of survival.

At 16, I was living in Pretoria, and we had just moved from a Black area to a very white area. South Africa was open, so Black people were allowed to move into certain parts and my parents were always against boundaries, so they pushed those limits. They wanted a better life for their kids. That was the aim, but it also meant we moved into a very hostile area. We were the only Black people in the area, so there were no neighbours or kids we could play with. Our parents wanted us to be safe, which meant if we wanted to visit friends they would need to drive us. Because if we got the bus, big white boys would attack us. 

When Nelson Mandela was released [in 1990] it was a great moment. We watched everything on television and there was a buzz in the country. There was excitement. There was relief. There was a curiosity. But we stayed home, our parents kept us off school and we were told not to go out in the streets because there were riots.  

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From nine years old, I was completely engulfed in dancing. I gave it my all. I also played netball, I was quite active and sporty, and quite good at running – which meant I was good at running away in difficult situations – and I was always competitive. It was about survival of the fittest. Dancing was a way for me to not just exist but to shine. I’ve always had that need to shine. And because of the situation around me in South Africa at the time, there was just not the opportunity. With dancing, I built my own stage.  

I loved Whitney Houston and Brenda Fassie, a singer from South Africa. Those were the performers I was looking at. And I was always watching ballet on television as a child, but I didn’t know who the stars were, I just had that image. Whitney Houston was my ignition. I thought, I can be like that, I can be loved and dance and have a voice. She was amazing. All I wanted to do as a child was sing and dance on stage and entertain people.  

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Oti and Motsi Mabuse
With sister and former Strictly star Oti at a party in Berlin. Photo: Franziska Krug/Getty Images

The thing that gets taken away from you with the racism in South Africa is your self-worth. You feel that your self-worth is at the bottom. So I would love to be able to tell my younger self that you are enough. I would love if she could go out into the world knowing she is enough in every situation. If I could speak to her, I wish I could make sure she really falls in love with herself but more than falling in love with herself, trusts herself – trusting her instinct, trusting what she feels. Dancing was segregated when I was growing up, and it impacted you because you understood that we were just a few steps behind. 

What people do not understand is that how South Africa was then affects you for the rest of your life. This is something that was so traumatising, that affects everything you do and the way you are. You feel even now that when you try to explain it to people, they’re like, stop using the victim card. It’s not a victim card – it is people trying to heal. In difficult times I would say it’s OK to ask for help. You deserve as much as all other people. It’s still a part of me. That early life, that teenager keeps on coming out and I have to calm it down a little bit. I say, things are OK, don’t worry, you’re good, you’re fine. 

We were brought up in what you would call ‘Black excellence’. You need to be educated, you need to perform, you need to prove that we’re enough. Not that our parents did it intentionally, they thought this was the way of survival. My parents thought dancing was a little hobby to keep us off the street – they were all about education. So I studied law, [her sister and fellow one-time Strictly star] Oti studied engineering, my other sister’s also an engineer. I think I have extra drive because our parents brought us up like that. Today you call it a workaholic, but this is how we grew up. You have got to work for things that you want.

Motsi Mabuse
Competing in the Let’s Dance TV show in Cologne in 2011. Photo: Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images

I would tell my younger self to go for it when it comes to her dancing career. People will question you all the time, so you need to be so sure about yourself. But, at the same time, do not tie the ups and downs of your career in with your self-worth. You are enough. End of story. But I was very, very naive when I moved to Germany at 18. I felt like I had no more excuses. There was a dancehall, there were teachers, there were shoe brushes, which is a tiny thing, but makes a huge difference to your dancing. I felt like I was coming to this country and now I had to be a champion – not realising that you had to start from further behind.  

The highlight of my dancing career was winning my first German championship, because it took nine years to get there. And four of those years I was runner up. Between all those times coming second, I did not let up. I was going to get that title no matter what.  

Now I have my own dance school and love teaching kids, but I don’t like to go to competitions. I have a real anxiety about them now. For me, it was about survival. Now I’m older, I just love to watch beautiful dancing, and that competition atmosphere gives me so much stress. I remember that feeling of never feeling good enough, even when you win. That is a pressure I don’t want to put kids under. I run the school with my husband. Our motto is that we want healthy dancers. When I watch Strictly it’s entertaining. It’s fun.  

Strictly judges Craig Revel Horwood, Motsie Mabuse, Shirley Ballas and Anton Du Beke
With her fellow Strictly judges Craig Revel Horwood, Shirley Ballas and Anton Du Beke. Photo: BBC

Work on yourself before you work on somebody else or on your relationship. That’s what I would tell my younger self. Our parents were quite strict, so there was no playing around. But even then, it was always like, do they like me? But the most important questions should have been do I like myself, would I have fallen in love with me? I stayed a little girl for quite a while. I think I only had to grow up around 28 when I first got divorced – well, hopefully the last time! Until then I was very naive. I was very focused on what I was doing – I didn’t take in the world, I lived in my world.  

I would love to have a last conversation with my brother because I didn’t realise I would have him in my life for such a short amount of time [Neo died aged 18 in the early ’90s]. I was the little sister that was annoying, like every little sister is. But I would have loved that he could have told me, you are the little sister that annoys me, but I still love you. And that kind of conversation didn’t happen. We were just playing – you think you have your whole life. I would also have been different if I would have been out in the world saying, hey, my big brother is gonna kick your ass if you do something to me. All of a sudden, I didn’t have a big brother to protect me any more.  

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If I could live any time again it would be my pregnancy. So I would love to go through that in a less stressed-out time. There was just so much going on. It happened all at once – I opened a school then I fell pregnant. And it became like survival mode. So I would love to do that the Hollywood way, putting my feet up, getting massages, not having to work.  

I remember getting that call to do Strictly Come Dancing in the UK and I was like, is this real? Is this happening to me, this girl from Africa? I love doingStrictly. It’s the biggest show in the UK and you can bring out that showgirl side of yourself. Then you go back to being a mum. So you get to live different lives. I thought writing this book would be a way to introduce me, so that people understand me, understand why I am the way I am. Even if people have taken to me and are super friendly, nobody really knows who I am. 

Strictly Come Dancing launches on Friday September 23 with the first live show on September 24, on BBC One and BBC iPlayer

Finding My Own Rhythm by Motsi Mabuse is out now (Ebury Spotlight, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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