ti Mabuse lists the messages she’s had from children and parents since she started her lockdown dance classes: the siblings who’ve attended every one since she started in March; the infants who’ve grown in confidence; the five-year-old beginner now taking advanced waltz sessions from her living room.
The professional dancer and reigning Strictly Come Dancing champion says stories about children getting fit and learning a new skill have been inspiring. Among the most rewarding are parents who say the feelgood nature of her classes have helped them speak more openly with their children.
“A lot of the feedback was that our dancing enabled them to have more conversations, it broke down boundaries and took away any awkwardness or silence,” Mabuse, 30, tells me from the plush grey living room fans will recognise from her workouts.
This month, she is among stars supporting the Standard’s Young London SOS campaign for children’s mental health. Alongside fellow Strictly star JJ Chalmers and others, she ran free YouTube sessions last week to commemorate Children’s Mental Health Week, co-organised by our campaign partner, Place2Be, the UK’s leading provider of school-based mental health services.
“When I dance, I get the sensation of joy,” Mabuse tells viewers. “It’s a great way to learn how to express yourself and feel what you’re feeling internally.” Today, she and Marius, her husband of nine years and also a professional dancer, are sheltering from the rain with their cockapoo puppy, Leo. She doesn’t share her Romanian husband’s love of mud but what they do share is a love of endorphins.
“People go out dancing because it makes them feel happy,” she says. “It’s almost like therapy through movement.” Of course, Mabuse has always understood the mood-boosting benefits of her “beautiful sport”.
Evening Standard launch Young London SOS mental health campaign
Until last year she was known as the South African superstar who could transform characters like Emmerdale’s Kelvin Fletcher (and more recently Bill Bailey) into confident Strictly glitterball winners, but the pandemic offered an opportunity to bring dancing’s mental health toolkit to the masses.
Thousands of Mabuse’s 564,000 followers have tuned into her free workouts, beamed out every morning during the first lockdown on Facebook and Instagram Live and more recently shared on her paid-for dance platform, Oti Mabuse Dance Studio, where classes can be booked for free or £8 a time. Her CBeebies show, Oti’s Boogie Beebies, was released in spring with 15 episodes for preschoolers and her new children’s book, Dance With Oti, encourages young people to express their feelings using their bodies.
Will she continue? With new presenting roles on BBC and Channel 4 she is busier than ever. But now is not the time to lose a sense of routine. “I hope we can help give children a sense normalcy,” says Mabuse, insisting she will continue her classes even when schools reopen.