Strictly's Johannes Radebe ready to bring Freedom Unleashed show to Belfast and party with the Irish
Johannes Radebe, one of Strictly Come Dancing's most popular performers, is bringing his new dance show to Belfast. He tells Gail Bell about growing up in a South African township, his days on the cruise ships and what it meant to bring ballroom and South African rhythms together for 'Freedom Unleashed'
HAILING from a "dancing nation", Strictly's Johannes Radebe knows a thing or two about rhythm, but a recent house-building venture had the South African-born performer stepping to a different beat.
Not that the personable dancer, based in London these days, was exactly 'hands-on' during a recent trip back to his home township of Zamdela where his mother, Jacobeth, was on the move to a new property.
"I've just had two months off, so I can't say I did nothing because I was busy building my mum's house back home in South Africa," he gushes warmly down the phone, "but I felt very chilled doing that."
An image of the flamboyant showman laying bricks in his shiny sequinned tailcoat quickly dissipates when he adds, "I wasn't actually building it myself, you know, but it was nice just to be around. I have always wished my mum could live in a castle because I always thought she was a queen. She always said, 'If I could, I would give you the world' – and that is something that has always stayed with me.
"Now that I'm in a position that I can do something for my mum, well, it has been like one of those dream moments, really. The house is now finished – the last thing we did was put in the kitchen before I flew back to the UK – so I'm happy that she's comfortable now. She calls her new residence 'Buckingham Palace' – she loves it."
He was speaking ahead of his new show, 'Freedom Unleashed', opening in Bridlington Spa in Yorkshire and moving to several venues across England before arriving in Belfast for three nights in May.
Described as an unrestrained, exuberant celebration of his South African roots, the show will also feature the talents of West End dancers and singers, all performing a mix of African rhythms mingled – unsurprisingly - with "a touch of ballroom magic".
"It will be a joyful celebration of dance, culture, passion and freedom," enthuses the two-time Professional South African Latin champion and three-time South African Amateur Latin Champion who has now completed four series with the hit BBC show Strictly Come Dancing – and winning the British LGBT Award for Media Moment of the Year when he and celebrity partner, John Whaite, became the first all-male partnership to compete on the show in 2021.
He is, he stresses, beyond excited at this second Freedom outing – his first dance show toured to all-round rapturous applause last year – and he is particularly looking forward to the Belfast date, the penultimate venue before the tour wraps up in Dublin on May 28.
"When people come out, it's going to be a party – and I love how you guys party in Ireland," he says, cackling heartily down the line from London.
"You guys remind me very much of our people – something makes me feel you have the spirit of Ubuntu, the spirit of humanity."
Freedom Unleashed will delve further into Radebe's influences and South African culture, exploring different styles and traditional Zulu dance – as well as ballroom and Latin "with a twist".
Dance, he says, is embedded in the culture of where he grew up, a place where everybody danced, whatever the mood music of the day.
"Where I come from, everybody dances," he says, simply.
"We're a dancing nation. Sad or happy, we dance. Dancing is part of our culture; we celebrate and we tell stories through dance. I wanted to incorporate everything I know and everything I am, using my world to showcase some of the stories of South Africa.
"And the great thing for me is the diverse cast of talented individuals from all over the world who are taking part - anyone can aspire to be part of this show regardless of their sex, regardless of how they look."
His own dancing story started aged seven in a recreation hall in Zamdela where, as a noticeably "flamboyant child", he felt liberated and for the first time sensed he was "good at something".
But dancing was also a refuge from bullying and prejudice: "I went to school, came home and I used to stay in the house and avoid being in the street because of name-calling," he says. "I was quite a flamboyant child – you couldn't miss me – and I knew from a very young age that some people did not welcome me.
"As a child, you just feel it, so I went back into my shell until I was introduced to dancing which made me feel invincible."
Bullies aside, the nimble-footed young star-in-the-making felt supported by his community and was given free dance lessons in Zamdela. On occasions when he had to raise money to enter competitions, he recalls dancing in shopping malls and washing cars - and a big-hearted community always pitching in.
"For me, that is the thing that I miss most – just that sense of community," he says, sounding wistful.
"London can be very isolating. I always love going back to Zamdela in December and on New Year's Eve it's like I am a six-year-old boy again. We never had fireworks, but we always would burn a huge tyre and we would sit around the fire chatting and laughing – that is still a beautiful memory for me."
He studied public relations at Vaal University of Technology in South Africa but left before graduating to "make ends meet" for his family. Then, aged 21, he left his home country for the first time to fly to Italy to work on cruise ships, dancing his way up the ranks to dance captain and "getting to seeing the world for free, while being paid and dancing to Abba every night".
After seven years he had had enough – "I was tired of living out of a suitcase and I felt I had lost touch with reality a little bit" – and walked off the ship and straight into television: as chance would have it, the debut season of Dancing with the Stars in South Africa.
More touring followed with international live dance show, Burn the Floor, before he moved to the UK to join the cast of professional dancers on Strictly Come Dancing in 2018 – "one of the greatest achievements" of his career to date.
Will he be foxtrotting across our screens for another series?
"You know, you always wait for that call, but I always said I will do Strictly Come Dancing for as long as they will have me," says the 36 year-old who re-energises by "falling off the grid" and walking to the park with a good book.
"My darling, here's the truth... I think being in the public eye is very draining and people don't realise how much it takes," he says.
"I think it is important for one's mental health to fall off the grid when you can because it centres you and brings you back to who you are.
"I work 24/7 and my priorities, going forward, are to show up a little bit and have a life and enjoy it – and maybe even have time for some romance. But, for now, I will keep on dancing and I am so excited to have everybody up dancing with me in Belfast and theatres around the country."
:: Johannes Radebe's Freedom Unleashed presented by ROYO theatre company is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from May 25-27