“I declared, ‘No more shame!’: the story of Johannes Radebe’s battle against bullies – and rise to Strictly superstardom.”
If you tuned in to Strictly Come Dancing in 2018, you probably noticed Johannes Radebe. Although not yet famous, Radebe’s talent shined through in the group dances performed by the professionals. A year later, he was paired with his first celebrity partner, actor Catherine Tyldesley, and together they performed the series’ first same-sex dance in heels, alongside fellow dancer Graziano Di Prima.
Radebe recalls that vogueing in black stilettos with Di Prima was like a moment of coming out for him. He felt empowered to embrace his identity and no longer hide or feel shame. Fast forward to 2021, Radebe continued to make a statement by dancing with John Whaite, making history as the first male couple on Strictly. This solidified Radebe’s status as one of the most beloved stars of the show.
Ignoring his performance costumes – a standout being a beaded green jumpsuit in the latest series – Radebe has been seen wearing heels and a ballgown for special events, like when Strictly won a National Television award last year. However, today he is sporting sportswear, with a large quilted coat shielding him from the chilly weather.
Recently, Radebe, a South African citizen, completed the Life in the UK test in order to establish himself here. Though challenging, he successfully passed the test. “I left feeling like I may have been at risk of deportation,” he jokes. Now that the test and months of preparation are behind him, Radebe is fully focused on producing his third dance production, House of Jojo, which will kick off its tour in the UK at the end of March.
The inspiration for the show may have not directly come from immigration bureaucracy, but it sparked curiosity about connections. What is the origin of House of Jojo? What principles does it uphold? The creator expresses a desire for the show to mirror the realities of his own life. Many individuals have been able to prosper in this country thanks to opportunities afforded by immigration. It is a diverse nation with a large population of immigrants. As long as one follows the laws, they are guaranteed democracy and freedom. There is room for everyone to coexist.
Radebe is the main focus, but House of Jojo aims to include others. He has gathered a varied group of dancers, including some from countries with strict UK visa requirements. Others have faced rejection in the past due to not fitting the stereotypical image of a dancer. Radebe acknowledges the collaborative effort of his creative team in this beautiful process.
Radebe acknowledges that he owes his success to the support of others, such as his community who helped fund his transportation to dance competitions, his coaches who dedicated countless hours to his growth, and the influential figures who provided him with opportunities when his career was taking off. He humbly recognizes that it was a collective effort that got him to where he is today.
Radebe spent his childhood in Zamdela, a mining community in the Free State during the last years of apartheid. He was too young to fully understand the implications of the system. When traveling to church in a minibus, he noticed that some people in the white neighborhoods had large houses and pools surrounded by barbed-wire fences, while his family lived in a small bungalow where he shared a room with his sister and grandmother. He reflects, “I simply accepted that this was our situation compared to theirs.”
I am now aware of the fear that our parents experienced while raising us, and how it continues to impact our society. There is a disconnect that must be resolved, as the current situation for young people in South Africa is concerning. While I personally did not experience apartheid, I witness its consequences on a daily basis.
Did he realize as a kid that he stood out among the other boys? “Right from the beginning,” he chuckles. “My mannerisms, my interests – Barbies were my passion.” He enjoyed creating outfits for his sister’s dolls and dressing them up. When his father, who was employed at Coca-Cola, gave them money to buy something from a store, Radebe picked out his own doll. When his parents found out, they didn’t scold or shame him, but there was an awkward silence.
That came when Radebe started school. He was marked out as a “sissy boy”. Sometimes, he would be chased home by boys and threatened with violence. Even adults would verbally abuse him. “Conservative beliefs,” he says. “‘An African is an African and a man is a man.’ That is my Zulu uncles talking.” Later, they would constantly ask him when he would find a wife: “It’s not going to happen.” He smiles. “Those were daily conversations.”
There were brief moments of positivity – his mother was understanding and he bonded with two other boys who were facing similar struggles. However, the main focus was on staying alive: “I used to hide a lot. I would flee from any danger.” He felt at ease when his sister or friends were present, “but as soon as they were gone, I never felt secure.” I imagine it was scary, I comment. “Scary, indeed,” he replies in a gentle tone. One of his friends was severely beaten after being caught playing with dolls with Radebe and ended up missing school.
Dance played a crucial role in Radebe’s life, providing him with a sense of belonging and self-worth. He stumbled upon a dance class at a local recreation hall by chance when he was just seven years old, and immediately fell in love with it. This newfound passion helped to rebuild his confidence and self-esteem, and his reputation as a talented dancer offered him a sense of protection from his bullies. It also served as an outlet for him during the difficult times when his family life fell apart and his parents separated. Radebe shares that the applause he received while dancing made him feel like he mattered and belonged, even if it was only temporary. It was a world where he didn’t have to feel ashamed of his background, as others in the dance community understood and accepted him. When he returned to the outside world, it seemed dull in comparison to the lively and welcoming dance world he had come to know.
Radebe began participating in Latin and ballroom competitions, gathering funds from his neighbors to cover his travel and lodging expenses. As he delved deeper into this world, he also became more aware of the disparities of race and social status. He learned that success in these competitions was not solely based on talent, but also on grooming and appearance. Unfortunately, it was often the couples with more expensive costumes, typically white, who would come out on top.
After placing fourth, he recalls seeking guidance from a judge on ways to enhance his and his partner’s performance. “I can still vividly recall his words: ‘You will never succeed. Just look at yourselves, you appear disheveled.’ And to my partner: ‘Your physique is not suitable for this dance.'”
Radebe and his partner, who were among the top couples in their province, were invited to compete on an international level. However, due to financial constraints, they were unable to participate. Unlike their rival couples, who could afford private tuition with adjudicators prior to competitions, this was not a feasible option for Radebe and his partner. They often felt that being from a township put them at a disadvantage and made it seem like they could never win. Radebe acknowledges that dwelling on this would not have allowed him to survive in the industry or the world. He also recognizes that there are very few Black couples in the industry, which is a painful reality. Despite these challenges, they persevered and often found themselves as the only Black couple in the finals. Radebe’s coach would remind them to listen to the audience’s cheers, as it would indicate if they had won or not. Although they received the loudest cheers, they did not always receive the highest scores.
His companion left. “She told me, ‘I’m not enjoying this, I don’t want to continue.'” I was foolish enough to hold on, as I didn’t know what to do without it.” He chuckles, but he is downplaying his resiliency. Has he always been this determined? He takes a moment to think. “No, I’ve had people who loved me deeply, who showed me that I could achieve whatever I wanted in life, and that’s what helped me get through it,” he explains.
The focus was on experiencing youth during the early days of post-apartheid. He was frequently reminded of his fortune: “At every meal, my mother made sure to remind me that I had the chance to achieve something with my life.”
Was it more of a burden or a source of strength? “It was a combination of both – and it greatly affected many individuals. When I see my own family and the limited access to education and opportunities, it has resulted in a feeling of desperation. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to make the decision that they will not settle for what they have been given. Some have managed to overcome these challenges, while others have not.”
At the age of 13, Radebe’s mother was convinced to allow him to move out of their home and live with a dance coach couple in a different part of the country. They had recognized his potential and could offer him more opportunities in the nearby city of Johannesburg. Although he had hoped that attending a new school would improve his situation, he faced even worse bullying because of his sexuality. Despite trying to stand up to his bullies, Radebe often found himself being physically attacked. On the day of his final exam, he made the decision to leave that world behind and never return.
After being cast in a stage production, he worked as a dance instructor in Johannesburg. However, due to his low income, he couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. Instead, he would pay friendly taxi drivers a small fee to sleep in their cabs or secretly stay overnight in the dance studio. While frequenting gay clubs, Radebe noticed a pattern of older white men engaging in transactional relationships with young Black men. At times, he would ask to stay in a spare room, but always made it clear that there would be no exchange involved. Thankfully, most of these men allowed him to stay. However, when one of them attempted to sexually assault him, Radebe realized that his life had become too unstable and dangerous.
A friend motivated him to try out for a position as a dancer on cruise ships. He spent the following seven years entertaining audiences. Eventually, he landed a role on South Africa’s rendition of Strictly, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he hadn’t yet achieved a South African dance championship. “I refused to believe the judges when they said I would never win. And I proved them wrong. I not only won the [national Latin] title once, but twice.” He grins.
Unable to reword.
He claims that it has transformed his life and that of his family. “I am relieved to know that my family is doing well, which has always been my goal,” he states. Radebe’s father passed away during his teenage years, leaving him responsible for providing for his family. However, he was recently able to construct a home for his mother.
Since he was seven years old, he had envisioned dancing with another man as his ultimate dream. However, when he first expressed his desire to dance with a boy, he was denied the opportunity. The rejection caused him to feel ashamed and believe that he had to conceal a part of himself. He often wondered what it would be like to openly dance with another man. Finally, when he did get the chance to do so, he knew that it would resonate with many others and make them feel recognized.
During the 2021 season, he and Whaite were the first male couple and first gay partnership to make it to the final. In a different year, they would have been the winners (but they were defeated by the talented Rose Ayling-Ellis). I challenge anyone to watch their final dance, which was full of joy and freedom, without getting emotional.
“I have witnessed the positive impact our actions have had on countless individuals, and I continue to hear stories about it to this day,” states Radebe. “This serves as proof that we have contributed to making the world a better place simply by carrying out our work. It is a humbling experience and an honor to be a part of such a significant moment in history. I wish I could have lived in a world where I did not feel ashamed of who I am. I was never at fault, but societal pressures made me believe otherwise.”
He expressed that receiving support from the community felt like being embraced. It was a significant confidence boost and he also credits John for it. His relationships with loved ones have also improved, as his uncles no longer inquire about his plans to get married.
It has not been an easy journey for him. He now approaches social media with caution due to the severe abuse he has received. He and John have been subjected to hurtful comments such as being called disgusting and being told never to return to Africa. However, he has learned to not engage and tries to brush off the negativity. He has created a safe space for himself where these hurtful words have no impact on him. He believes that the issue lies with those who are not willing to learn and invites them to visit House of Jojo where he can educate them. He refuses to base his actions and way of life on the opinions of others and instead strives to create a world filled with love and kindness.
Later, I enjoyed a pleasant afternoon rewatching videos of Radebe’s dance performances. His movements have a unique combination of precision, energy, and grace. However, my thoughts mostly revolve around the young boy who faced bullying, shame, and disadvantage, yet persevered. “Honestly, I never imagined this would be my career,” he had expressed earlier. Despite not planning for it and receiving discouragement from others, he never gave up. “Sometimes I can’t believe it, how did I get here?” he adds. “But I am surrounded by amazing people who support me. That’s how I have made it through. It was never about money or fame for me. Dancing has always brought me happiness and joy.”
to 3 April
Jojo’s House is embarking on a tour across the United Kingdom from March 29th to April 3rd.