Born in South Africa, Oti Mabuse enjoyed a stellar career as a Latin American dancer before becoming a regular on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. As her debut as choreographer, Ain’t Misbehavin’, opens at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, she tells Nick Smurthwaite about the dedication required to succeed in competition and the joy of telling stories through dance
As the darling of Saturday night TV, performer Oti Mabuse is used to making people look good on the dance floor. Now she’s bringing those skills to musical theatre for the first time, as choreographer for a revival of 1970s musical Ain’t Misbehavin’.
For the past four years, the South African star has been one of the stand-out professional dancers on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, partnering contestants Anthony Ogogo, Danny Mac, Jonnie Peacock and Graeme Swann in succession. More recently she was a judge and coach on The Greatest Dancer, also for the BBC. Her protégée, Ellie Fergusson, went on to win the competition.
What was your first non-theatre/dance job?
Waitress at a Wimpy in Pretoria.
What was your first professional job as a dancer?
Dance teacher in Pretoria, and competitor in Latin and Ballroom competitions.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mom. She set up a dance school in Pretoria.
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
Hard work pays off.
If you hadn’t become a dancer, what would you have been?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t let your nerves get the better of you.
Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions?
I have to pray before I perform.
Growing up in Pretoria, Mabuse started dance classes at four and went on to become South Africa’s Latin American dance champion for eight consecutive years.
Now she is in the running to take over as co-presenter of TV’s The One Show while regular presenter Alex Jones is on maternity leave. “I’m enjoying myself,” the 28-year-old says when asked about her workload. “I don’t do anything I’m not going to enjoy.”
Running parallel to Mabuse’s passion for dancing has been a love of theatre. In 2016, she made her stage acting debut as Tituba in The Crucible at the Bad Hersfeld Festival in Germany.
Now she has turned to choreography for Paul Taylor-Mills and Mercury Theatre Colchester’s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the Tony award-winning tribute to the music of Fats Waller, which recreates the intoxicating atmosphere of a 1920s Harlem nightclub.
Though she says she knew little of Waller’s music before she started work on show, Mabuse has steeped herself in his recordings and the whole culture of pre-war Harlem for weeks now. She says: “I’ve made storylines through dance to complement the music. It’s all about enhancing the singing and acting. It’s been an amazing learning curve for me.”
The cast of five has varying dance experience, so in that respect it is not dissimilar to working with the non-professional dancers on Strictly. “I’m bringing everything I’ve learned from Strictly and The Greatest Dancer to the rehearsal room,” she says. “On Strictly, my job is to make the celebrities look great and help them improve week by week. This is more creative because we’re telling stories through dance and working with a group of people.”
Mabuse, who has been dancing for almost a quarter of a century, took time off briefly in her early 20s when she worked for a civil engineering company in Pretoria before doing a degree in the same subject. She says: “I didn’t like it. After six months, I told my mum I wanted to be a professional dancer.”
She has never been in a musical and though she says she has to work on her singing voice, there are a few roles she has her eye on. “I’m obsessed with Wicked, and I’d love to play Nala in The Lion King. Some of the songs from The Lion King are performed in my native tongue, so when the cast performed an extract from the show in Strictly in the language I grew up with, it made me cry.”
‘You can’t be half-hearted about competitive dancing, you have to be prepared to give your whole life over to it’
Now firmly established in the UK, Mabuse says she loves living here and that “the people are so nice and polite.” She wants to continue to help people to dance better. “That’s not work for me, so I think I’d like to have my own dance academy, with a view to training young people for show dancing and musical theatre, with maybe a competitive element as well.
She continues: “I’ve dedicated my life to competitive dancing, so I’d like to pass that on to others. You can’t be half-hearted about competitive dancing, you have to be prepared to give your whole life over to it.”
Born: 1990, Pretoria
Training: Degree in civil engineering, Tshwane University of Technology
Career highlights: Eight-times Latin American dance champion of South Africa; German Freestyle Latin Champion (2014); professional dancer in Let’s Dance – German version of Strictly (2015-16); professional dancer on Strictly Come Dancing, BBC (2015-present); judge and coach on The Greatest Dancer, BBC (2019); choreographer, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Tamasha Theatre Company (2019)
Agent: Olivia Bell Management