The married Strictly professionals announced their split in March
For most separated couples being forced to carry on working together in close proximity is the very definition of a nightmare.
That, however, is exactly the pickle that Strictly professionals Kevin and Karen Clifton have found themselves in since announcing their split earlier this year.
Far from maintaining a discreet distance, they’re currently embroiled in a nationwide dance tour that was booked many months before they made the decision to split up.
It is an intense experience, particularly when you consider that for the Cliftons close proximity is exactly that, with passionate routines bringing them chest-to-chest and cheek- to-cheek.
Isn’t it rather awkward?
“Not at all,” insists Karen when we catch up for a chat over the phone following the opening night of the tour earlier this week.
“We’re very focused on what we love to do – dance has always been a big part of our lives and a big part of our relationship.
“Some other couples would find it very hard but we’ve always worked really well together so it has never been an issue.
“Of course, it’s not happy days all the time – but most of the time we are very focused on what we do. You put your egos aside, you put everything aside – it’s a clean sheet.”
It is a sentiment echoed by her soon- to-be former husband.
“It is still the same collaboration,” he insists.
“It’s a different dynamic, a different energy now but nothing else has changed in terms of work – it’s just that everything is now out in the open.”
By that he means what he referred to earlier this year as “the elephant in the room” has been addressed: rumours about the Cliftons’ marriage had been around since the last series of the show and gained currency when the couple didn’t dance together in the final.
It took them until March, however, to confirm that their time as a Mr and Mrs was over – although they put on a united front with Karen still wearing her wedding ring.
With their tour dates – the show is a follow-up to last year’s sell-out – long since written in stone however, is this a question of making a virtue out of a necessity?
Again Karen insists not.
“Remember that we started out as really good friends and that hasn’t changed – the fact that we worked so well together was the base of our love which evolved from that and our love for dancing,” she says.
“Other circumstances changed but just because our other life as a married couple hasn’t worked out doesn’t mean everything else needs to crumble.
The couple seem to have fallen prey to the Strictly curse
Some other couples would find it very hard but we’ve always worked really well together
“I think that is a common assumption – that you split up and everything disintegrates around you – and it’s one we’d love to change.”
Still, the sad fact remains that like so many before them the couple seem to have fallen prey to the Strictly curse, which has seen previously rock- solid marriages disintegrate amid the pulsating rumbas and sequins.
The Cliftons, having married in July 2015, didn’t even make it to their third wedding anniversary.
It is all the more puzzling because they always seemed besotted with one another even if on paper they are not the most obvious match: Karen the sassy Venezuelan-born New Yorker, Kevin the nice middle-class boy from Lincolnshire who Sir Brucie liked to call “Kevin from Grimsby”.
Yet Kevin admits it was pretty much love at first sight when their paths crossed nine years ago in New York while both were working for a touring company called Burn The Floor.
“I thought she was a bit out of my league to be honest,” he has said in the past.
The pair married in Westminster in front of 150 family and friends and for a time shared a home in leafy Wimbledon, south-west London.
Fast forward to the present though and it seems that while their on-stage chemistry remains vibrant, the domestic passion has fizzled out.
Sadly, neither will be drawn on their living arrangements now, nor whether it is adjoining but separate hotel rooms they retire to once their evening tour performance is over.
“I don’t think we need to go into that do we,” says Kevin diplomatically.
Indeed, any further probing over their marriage is off the agenda.
Reports earlier this year suggested that Karen was looking to relocate back to the US, although this seems unlikely given that both Cliftons insist they are hoping to return to the Strictly dancefloor when the show resumes in the autumn.
Kevin was partnered with comedian Susan Calman, a pairing that also proved a hit with viewers
“We’ve had initial conversations but we are still waiting for contracts so I can’t 100 per cent say we will be in it,” says Kevin.
“I think they have to finalise their celebrity line-up – well I hope that’s what it is. Either way we’re on standby waiting for that phone call as we’d love to be doing it.”
A Strictly favourite, Kevin has been a particular success story on the show, whirling four of his five partners – Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid, East- Enders actress Kellie Bright, the singers Frankie Bridge and Louise Redknapp – all the way to the final since joining the cast in 2013.
Last year he partnered comedian Susan Calman, a pairing that also proved a hit with viewers.
Yet popularity is no guarantee of a contract, as stalwart Brendan Cole – who had been with the show since the first series – discovered earlier this year when he was told by producers that he was no longer needed.
Kevin admits the was a shock for all the professional dancers.
“He was a big part of the Strictly family,” he says.
“But the show evolves and I think that’s why it is so successful – we’ve seen Bruce leave the show, then Len Goodman, and each time people thought it couldn’t carry on without them, but instead it just goes from strength to strength.
“At the end of the day the BBC does tend to get it right – and it keeps us all on our toes. We all know we need to keep pushing ourselves as our jobs might be taken by hot young dancers.”
If the Cliftons do return he insists their separation will be no reason for rivalry – rumours of which beset all the professional dancers every year.
“We have always supported each other – we have always tried not to see it as too much of a competition between us and that won’t change,” he says.
“Our job is to help the celebrities and to make good entertainment for the viewers.”
Kevin and sister Joanne, with their parents, win a 1993 competition
Both Cliftons remain friends with all their partners: Karen is in touch with former partners Jeremy Vine and Dave Myers, even spending a weekend with the Hairy Biker and his wife in the wake of their dance partnership.
I’ve got on really well with all of my partners – they were all texting last night to say we hope the first show goes well and they’re all saying they’re going to see it,” adds Kevin.
“I can’t wait to go to Glasgow as Susan [Calman] has said she is definitely coming to see us there.”
His 2016 partner Louise Red- knapp, of course, has also fallen foul of the Strictly curse, announcing her own separation from Jamie Redknapp, her husband of 19 years, in the wake of her appearance on the show.
Since then she has thrown herself back into work, notably appearing on the West End stage as the iconic character Sally Bowles in Cabaret, complete with corset and suspenders.
It’s a far cry from the nervous figure she cut when she first appeared on the programme.
Both Cliftons remain friends with all their partners
“It happens with a lot of the celebrities,” says Kevin.
“They’re confident in their own world but then they come on to Strictly and it’s suddenly very exposing.
“I found with all my partners there was the initial excitement but then the reality sinks in and they freeze up. It is part of our job to bring them out of themselves to a place where they’re comfortable.”
In fact, it turns out that even these seasoned professionals still get an attack of the nerves.
“We got three standing ovations after our opening night last night which was amazing but we were still really nervous going on,” says Kevin.
“We both get stage fright a bit before we step out on the stage.
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“We never take any of it for granted.”
The big question, of course, is whether the pair will be able to continue to dance together so intimately once they get new romantic partners – both remain single at the moment.
“I don’t think anything will ever change between me and Karen,” says Kevin.
“It’s all about respect and kindness. We have a great friendship and we’re never going to lose that.”
Kevin And Karen Dance 2018 is currently on a two-month UK tour. For details and tickets go to kevinandkarenlive.com
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