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Bad things happened around me – there were drugs and gangs on the streets – but my focus was on this one-hour escape every week.
Dance saved me.‘When I was ten I was put forward for a scholarship at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. But the more I danced, the more I knew this incredible gift I’d been given was going to be my life.’Thousands of miles away, Kevin never had any doubt that dance would be his life.
He was born with a silver sequin in his mouth as his parents Keith and Judy were world-champion Latin dancers, as was his aunt Lynn.
Even his grandmother Peggy was a quickstep world champion and his sister, 33-year-old Joanne (who is also one of the Strictly pros), would become a world champion in 2013 at the Professional World Dancesport Games.‘My parents ran a dance school,’ Kevin says.
‘I would walk into class with fake tan just on my neck and make cracks about my costumes.’At 15 he stopped wanting to dance with Joanne. ‘There is a chemistry between dancers and it didn’t seem right to be dancing with my sister. She stopped doing Latin and focused completely on ballroom.’But as much as Kevin enjoyed the buzz of the audience, he never felt totally happy in the world of dance competitions. Kevin: Meeting Robbie Williams when he came on Strictly. ‘My parents thought I’d gone mad and run away to join the circus.
‘It is a very small world and insanely competitive,’ he says. I was wearing tails and he said, ‘Is that a cummerbund? They were so fixed on competition dancing that they didn’t get what I was doing.
‘From as early as I can remember I was at the back of classes joining in.’ He and Joanne paired up and were soon winning medals at competitions all over the world. SECRET AMBITION Karen: To play Anita in West Side Story. At this stage, a man entered his life who would eventually knit his future together with Karen: the renowned choreographer Jason Gilkison, who is director of choreography on Strictly (tipped to replace Len Goodman as head judge) and also directing Kevin and Karen Dance.
At school, he avoided being bullied by ‘being the first to make jokes’ about his passion for dance. Jason approached Kevin and asked him to join a new show – a fusion of ballroom, modern and contemporary dance – called Burn the Floor, which opened on Broadway in 2009.‘It was my rebellion,’ Kevin says.
They are both well used to being viewed as little more than television dolls.
But Will could do it, so I treated him more as an equal and, yes, I was tougher. Her mother Miriam Cardenas uprooted her three children (Karen has a brother, Jean, 36, and a sister, Carol, 44) from Venezuela to New York City when her youngest was eight, soon after their father – who is no longer in contact with Karen – walked out of their lives. My mum had to work away from home and my sister got a job, so my brother and I had to look after ourselves a lot.
But I saw him as an artist who wanted to deliver the best for the show. Miriam’s aim was to give her family a better life, but her job as a housekeeper was three hours away from the small apartment in the Bronx that was all she could afford. It wasn’t easy.’At school, Karen’s inability to speak English further alienated her.
How on earth, I wonder, can this all be communicated through tangos and foxtrots? ‘It’s an interpretation: how two people going through tough times on different sides of the globe found each other. There will be lots of emotion in the dance.’On the surface, Kevin and Karen are as different as chalk and cheese. ‘But we are more alike than anyone knows,’ adds Karen, whose Strictly partners have included Jeremy Vine (‘I tell Kevin he’s the only man I would ever run away with – it’s that voice’), Hairy Biker Dave Myers (‘He got me into cooking.
I have complete confidence in the kitchen now thanks to him’) and Will Young, who quit the show after three weeks citing personal reasons.