Her parents, Keith and Judy Clifton, were the best dancers in the world while her older brother Kevin – yes, the guy from Strictly – was rapt with what he saw.
When Joanne was born in 1983, there was almost no question that she’d follow suit. After all, when her parents couldn’t find a babysitter and needed to be at their dance school, she and Kevin would tag along and find themselves tapping their feet from the sidelines.
Clifton was born in the village of Waltham, in Lincolnshire, and it wasn’t long before she started taking lessons. They were free, of course, and her parents made sure she had the best tuition possible. Before long, she was competing nationally and internationally – a child star, no less – and as the partner of brother Kevin, she was winning competitions.
The idea of a life dominated by sibling rivalry didn’t appeal, so sensibly Joanne chose to specialise in ballroom so as not to compete against her brother. It was a smart move and she notched up five British Championships and three Italian Championships as well as becoming Professional Ballroom European Champion in 2012 and Professional World Dancesport Games Champion in 2013.
It wasn’t always easy, however, and Clifton learned lessons the hard way. Her success came at a price.
“I did the competitions but I struggled with the performance, like giving facial expressions. Mom and dad would encourage me to smile because I was quite shy. But then for some reason, something just clicked.
“I couldn’t do anything else, really. We’ve never had a normal job. It’s always been dance. I think Kev sold stuff on the phone for a while, telesales or something, but only to fund his own dancing. I learned how to do nails to earn a few quid, but again that just paid for the dancing. We’re lucky really because our parents have been great because dancing costs so much with all the rehearsal and all the travel and all the costumes. But I got to where I wanted to be because of their support.”
Clifton studied with her father and also had some lessons from Shirley Ballas, the doyenne of ballroom dance teaching, who is also now on Strictly. To further her career, she also went to live in Italy for a while, which proved to be the turning point in her career.
Clifton moved to Bologna in 2000 to train with Team Diablo, the biggest dance school in Europe. She was initially partnered with Marco Cavallaro, reaching sixth in the world in amateur rankings with him. She moved to professional competition when she was chosen to partner Paolo Bosco in 2011 and in 2013 they were amongst ten other professional dancing couples to be invited to perform at the Kremlin.
She and her partner became champions of the World Dancesport Games in Taiwan in 2013 and won the World Professional Ballroom Showdance Championships in Merano, Italy, later that year. Clifton danced with Bosco competitively until his retirement on December 15, 2013. She retired from competitive dancing herself four days later.
“Learing in Italy was almost like being in the military. It was non-stop, completely relentless. We would be in the studio practising or doing gym or doing sports psychology or having blood tests or breathing tests. It was really regimented. We’d start at 7.30am and go right through until 11pm at night with just an hour’s break at lunch and then a short break for a small evening meal. We’d be under a sports dietician who would monitor what we ate. It really was a lot of work. But that was what it took. And when I reached the goal that I wanted to reach it was all the more satisfying because of the work that went in.”
When Clifton landed on Strictly – and now that she’s retired and has moved onto other things – the lessons of Italy stayed with her. Hard work underpinned the success that she has gone onto achieve.
“Everything that I was taught in Italy has stuck. I don’t go off and do my own thing. There’s no slacking. This is my job, I do it at 300 per cent. I won’t go off and miss a show. I’d have to be at death’s door before I took a day off. That’s what I was taught in Italy. My friend had a broken foot, but for five years she danced on it and eventually she agreed to let them operate. I always think that if she could dance for five years with a broken foot then I can get through a show, no matter how I’m feeling.”
In spring 2014, after retiring as a competitor, she joined her brother as a dancer in the Burn the Floor Dance Company, performing in the show’s tour of Australia and Japan.
And then she was selected for Strictly Come Dancing. In her first year, she was partnered with the DJ Scott Mills. They made it through to week six but were eliminated in the Halloween show.
Clifton remained part of the professional line-up for the following series but was not given a partner for the main show. She did, however, compete in the Children in Need special with the actor Stephen McGann and went on to win the Christmas Special with the series nine winner Harry Judd.
Clifton returned full-time to the main show for the 14th series and was paired with the TV presenter Ore Oduba. On December 17 they were crowned the winners, giving her her first win of the main series.
“I loved Strictly,” she says. “It was the toughest decision to leave it. Dancing with Scott…. well, he was terrible, but we had so much fun. We had all the laughs. It was brilliant. The special with Russell Grant was great and he still calls me his stage godmother, we talk to each other all the time. Then Harry Judd in the Christmas special was great too. But winning with Ore was amazing.
“The whole experience was really good and we’re good friends now. He’s coming into musical theatre as well, like me, so we meet up for dinner and support each other.
“I travelled up to Leeds to see him in Grease and we both have a lot of fun. That really was the greatest experience. Strictly was such a wonderful show to be on. However much the press make out people don’t get on, it’s nonsense. We were all really good friends. So it was a tough decision to leave and I thought there was nowhere to go but down after Ore. I can’t tell you how much I liked it. Even the cameramen were great. There are so many people involved and they are so lovely and so dedicated. Mom and dad went last week and the cameramen were all asking after me. I’m in touch with the make-up guys on Instagram. I’d never say never about going back but I’m happy now.”
Clifton left the show so that she could focus on her stage career. She was determined to move into musical theatre and she’s made a go of that too. She warmed up for her first roles by getting acting parts in small fringe shows, above pubs, then took to the stage in early 2017 in the lead role of Millie Dillmount, in the UK Tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Between December 2017 and January 2018, Clifton played the role of Dale Tremont in the musical Top Hat. The production performed at the Gatehouse London, with rave reviews about Clifton’s performance. And after that she secured the lead role of Alex Owens in the UK Tour of Flashdance the Musical.
“Winning Strictly meant there was a lot of Strictly fans watching me when I moved into musical theatre, so things went well in Thoroughly Modern Millie. I think people were interested to see whether I could sing and act as well as dance. So with that show, I deliberately started the show with my back to the audience and then I’d slowly turn round and the first thing I’d do was sing, rather than dance. That lifted the pressure off and I’d feel like I’d be surprising the audience because they’d know me for dancing but the first thing I did was sing. I loved it. It was great. Of course, I’m grateful that Strictly fans followed by journey and I hope they continue to follow me.”
Flashdance was a very different proposition and provided Clifton with her most serious role to date. “Most of the other roles are a little bit funny or quirky but my character in Flashdance was very determined and very tomboyish. The biggest challenge in that was getting wet every night and riding a bike, I couldn’t do that. It was also the most exhausting role I’ve ever done because of the amount of dancing that’s in it. I was only offstage for five singing numbers in total, apart from that I didn’t get a break. So it was the most tiring one but it was also the one that showed me in a different light.”
Nothing could have prepared her for her latest role, in the Rocky Horror Show. The all-action adult pantomime will feature at the Grand Theatre, in Wolverhampton, from Monday to Saturday.
The legendary rock ‘n’ roll musical is coming towards the end of a sell-out worldwide tour, having now been seen by over 30 million theatregoers. Starring Clifton as Janet and Stephen Webb as Dr Frank n Furter, it features timeless classics, including Sweet Transvestite, Damn It Janet, and of course, the pelvic-thrusting Time Warp.
Clifton says: “The show is a breath of fresh air and it’s nice that I’m past the stage of having to rely on my dancing. In Rocky Horror, it’s all about acting and I always need to be on top of my game.
“The show is the most fun thing I’ve ever, ever done. It’s coming to a close and we’ve only got a few weeks left. It’s been the quickest tour ever and that’s mainly down to the audience.
“You have to be switched on all the time because you don’t know what the audience will throw at you.
“The audience are a massive, massive part of it. We’re not really allowed to react when they shout stuff but their call outs absolutely fit into the show. It’s funny for everybody.
“We always have to listen out. Sometimes they won’t say the normal lines. But the whole thing is insane. It’s the most bonkers role I’ve ever done. It’s different to any of the others I’ve played. By the end, my character is just an animal. It’s such a massive journey and I’m doing things on stage I’ve never done in my career.
“We were talking about it last night and particularly the scenes in the bed that we do. It’s outrageous. And to thing that this is our job. It’s ridiculous.”
Rocky won’t be the last that we see of Clifton, however. She’s off to pantomime in Sheffield over Christmas before flying out to New York to study acting. She’s already studied musical theatre for five years, with private lessons, and now she’s going to study film acting. “I love to learn and improve my skills. Who knows where it will lead?”
Then she’ll be back for Burn The Floor with her older brother, Kevin. “It might be the last time I ever do proper dancing. We’ll see.”
Ambitious, determined, focused and talented – it won’t be the last we see of her.