Feature by Patsy Moss

Strictly fans will no doubt have sighed in disappointment when Oti Mabuse declared earlier this year that she was quitting the show after seven successful seasons. 

Having lifted the coveted glitter ball twice in succession - with Kelvin Fletcher in 2019 and Bill Bailey in 2020 - Oti is a viewer’s favourite whose routines appear effortless and are totally mesmerising to watch.

Her affable nature and ability to turn the most unexpected of celebrities into winners - think Bill Bailey - has seen her become one of the show’s best-loved professionals. 

There’s no doubt that Oti will be missed when the Saturday evening dance show returns for its 20th season this autumn, but she hasn’t completely disappeared from our lives. 

A gutsy lady with big ambitions that extend way beyond our TV screens, Oti is currently concentrating on her UK tour, I Am Here. In the show, she tells her remarkable story - from growing up in South Africa and deciding to pursue her love of dance, right through to her 2015 debut on Strictly, where she partnered Olympic boxer Anthony Ogogo.

So why I Am Here, and why now? 

“It has been a long wait, as the tour was supposed to happen two years ago,” Oti explains. “It’s something I feel really passionate about, as there has never been a female-led solo dance tour ever, ever, ever... I feel really lucky to be the first one to go out there and tell my story.

“The show starts here in the UK with everything I have today and focuses on the experiences I have been through - all the amazing dance shows that I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of. Then we go back in time to Germany, to see where the training-crazy Oti came from. We then take it all the way back to South Africa, to where I was born and to the history of South Africa itself - telling love stories as we go.”

Oti’s journey is sure to inspire many who have their hearts set on a future in the performing arts.

Together with her two siblings - Motsi (who’s now a judge on Strictly) and Phemelo - she began having dance lessons at school and started competing - very successfully - at the tender age of five. Unlike many whose inspiration comes from the stars they see on TV and social media, Oti’s motivation came from her family.

“There weren’t dancers who came from South Africa, to be honest. We didn’t have the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and all that. We didn’t have them to watch on TV and to look up to. That was not our world. My family, and my mom specifically, was our inspiration for a very, very, very long time. We still honour and love her so much because she did so much for us, as did our father.”
As Oti grew older, a career in civil engineering became her main focus. But working on-site in construction, she had a moment that led her to question her choices and subsequently brought about a huge life change...
“I was just walking and giving people instructions, and suddenly this moment came to me. I had this real sense of missing something. I then realised I was missing the sensation of dancing. I hadn’t danced in three months and was really missing it! I questioned if I was really happy. Did working in construction fulfil me? I had to really reflect on what I was doing and what I was feeling. I told my mom: I’m sorry but I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to become a professional dancer and I’m leaving next month.”
Oti’s news wasn’t received particularly well...

“It took 10 years for me to get to a place where I’m, like, yeah, it was the right decision. At the time, I was young, and like any mom, she was concerned that her 19-year-old daughter had decided to leave home to follow her dream in another country, on another continent, where they spoke a different language. It was really difficult for her to understand why I would do that to myself, but now I think she’s really, really proud.”

Oti is now reaping the rewards of her decision - and of all the hard work she’s put into becoming one of the biggest stars in her field. Although her journey hasn’t always been easy, following her gut instinct has certainly paid off, and she recommends that anyone wanting to follow in her footsteps should do the same.

“It’s all about hard work and realistic passion, working your way and always having an idea about what you want to have happen next. At 17, everything I thought I would achieve, I did. Same at 24. Now, at 30, I have new goals...”  

That said, Oti didn’t plan to be on TV - that wasn’t something she saw coming at all. 

“All I ever wanted to do was be a professional dancer. That happened and next came Strictly Germany. The goal was to win that, and although that didn’t happen, it led to me being invited to do Strictly UK. I was, like, okay, so here’s the next goal then! I put 200% into it, as it’s everyone’s dream to win that show and lift the glitter ball.” 

Oti still has to pinch herself regarding her Strictly success, but having made her dream come true, she’s now concentrating on her upcoming tour.

So is there a part in I Am Here that she’s really looking forward to performing?

“Even though we’re talking a lot about Africa, my favourite part is the musical section, where we talk about the West End and all my favourite musicals. It’s fast-paced, with lots of costume changes, and is so much fun. The whole time we’re dancing you just hear us go ‘Yeah, come on, guys, we’ve got this!’” 

As well as preparing for her UK tour, Oti is working alongside Arlene Phillips to choreograph brand-new musical The Cher Show - which comes to the Midlands later this year - and is also hosting TV show Romeo And Duet. 

But can she see herself returning to Strictly at some point in the future?

“It fills my soul when people say I will be missed, and obviously when I watch it, there will be a couple of tears. But I will be there in the background, supporting my sister and my friends and giving them advice. Those people are my family here, and I absolutely love everything about them.” 

Oti Mabuse: I Am Here shows at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre on Sunday 29 May; Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Sun 26 June and Birmingham Hippodrome on Sunday 31 July.