Born in 1981, Motsi Mabuse spent her childhood in South Africa, living under apartheid until the age of nine. Encouraged by her father and mother, a lawyer and teacher respectively, she began dancing when she turned six and was competing by 11. In 2000, Mabuse moved to Germany to continue her career as a ballroom dancer, as well as launching her own dance school and transitioning from stage to TV screen for her show Let’s Dance, first as a competitor, then as a judge. Now she appears on Strictly Come Dancing, alongside her sister Oti, and lives in Germany with her husband, Evgenij Voznyuk, and their young daughter. Her memoir, Finding My Own Rhythm, is out now. Strictly Come Dancing 2022 is on BBC One.
Back in my family’s house in South Africa, I was always a bit of a showgirl. Every time I got an opportunity to be in front of a camera I was posing and performing. I am more feminine now, but as a child I was a tomboy. Mum kept our hair short because she hated doing it, and she probably didn’t have the time and perhaps even the knowledge of how to soften our hair up. I was really skinny too because I was so active, always running around and burning energy. I looked like a boy. Then, aged 16, I started to think: “Hold on, things are changing. I am a girl!” With that my behaviour started to shift too. I began to cover up a bit more as I became more aware of my body.
Puberty is a tough time, especially in South Africa, where adults call it “the stage” and it is seen as slightly taboo. On top of that, I wasn’t great at school because I was so focused on dancing. If I didn’t get told to do my homework, I just wouldn’t do it. On the positive side, my dedication to dancing meant that I didn’t have a chance to behave badly or bunk off school. I went to the cinema once without calling my mum and got in a lot of trouble. Other than that, I was a good girl.
I could never say I was a feminine dancer – I wasn’t the type to be sexy. It was always about rhythm and using my body as an instrument. But I was competitive. It runs in the family. Being able to get a trophy for doing something well also validated me in deeper ways beyond just winning. When you have a little sister, that little sister always gets the attention. In my case, I was the dark one and Oti was lighter. As a result I definitely encountered colourism – I was considered the ugly one, and she was the pretty one because of her skin tone and her hair. That was how people categorised beauty back then.
When I started to get really good at dancing, and began to win competitions, something clicked and it made me think: “Hey everyone, look at me! I’m also here.”
I was dark, Oti was lighter. As a result I was considered the ugly one, she was the pretty one, because of her skin tone and her hair
I knew from the outset that the world wasn’t fair. I was aware that South Africa was a mess, but we didn’t speak about it at home. Instead we had a lot of rules: “Don’t do this, don’t go there, this is dangerous.” It was just a way of keeping us safe, but our parents would never say that directly or admit that they were scared or worried. Even to this day our parents won’t fight in front of us. It was all about pretending everything was OK.
I started school aged five and I knew then that I was a black girl in that situation. We went to an English-speaking school, and while it wasn’t like I was trying hard to be liked by the white pupils, deep down I was often thinking: “Maybe you’ll like me?” I was always hoping that, besides my colour, they could see more of me.
Dancing became a way of working through those feelings. When I dance, and when I dance for myself, I am enjoying my body, and it is a space where I can’t be judged because it’s something genuine that is happening from within.
It’s the competitive factor that makes it not so nice, however. It was easier to be in competitions when I was young – all I felt was: “Haha! I’m winning!” – then during the puberty years I became more conscious of ranking and order, and those results started taking centre stage. There was so much pressure on me that sometimes I would cry.
I was the first black girl in South Africa to leave the country because of ballroom dancing. The only one. That was my drive. That and this nightmare I have always had of ending up on the streets. I don’t know where that fear comes from, but back then it kept me turning up to practise.
So much about athletic training comes with a type of intensity and pressure that can have a long-term impact. When I was in Europe as a dance teacher, a mother once told me: “You have my permission to hit my child if he’s not listening.” I even got slapped [by a teacher] in front of my mum. But the culture around that type of thing was: “Don’t say anything.”
Putting young children into any kind of sporting competition requires close supervision. As a mum, I’m going to keep all of that away from my child. If she wants to dance professionally, she can when she’s 18, but not before that.
In the end, it was the pressure of competing that made me want to move into TV. Dancing, performing, anything that causes that kind of stress is deadly, whether it’s mentally or physically. You have to continuously work on yourself in order to heal.
It’s difficult becoming a mother and rediscovering your identity. When I look at old pictures of myself, I realise that I will never be the same as I once was. I’ve had to acknowledge that there are different stages in life and it’s important to let go of the older ones. I had to learn how to accept: “You’re not that person you used to be – you’re now a mum and a businesswoman.”
There are also certain pressures nowadays to look perfectly perfect, especially with social media. To be under that influence all the time and on TV is another level of scrutiny. Still, I do love being on Strictly and I love dancing. I love the glitz and glamour, the excitement. I love having my opinion heard. I love to see the journeys. I love to feel the anticipation of what is going to happen week on week. I love it when people do well.
When I turned 40 I thought I needed to start protecting myself – and this little girl in the photo. I’m constantly connected to the seven-year-old version of me – mainly because I have to raise a little girl of my own and I want to make sure she never feels shame about who she is.
Being a mum changed me – it opened up so many parts of my early life that I thought were stashed safely in the back of the cupboard. As soon as I had my girl they all came out shouting: “We’re back! Welcome to motherhood!”
As a result, I’ve made sure my daughter has clear boundaries: she feels safe enough to get angry and speak her mind. I want her to understand work ethic and self-love – but in a way that I feel is authentic, not just buying a new Gucci bag. True self-love. To be OK in who you are. Something I wish I’d had back then.