South African dancer Keo Motsepe began his competitive dance career as an 11-year-old by representing South Africa in international Latin Ballroom dance competitions. He won his first contest at the age of 14, and reigned for eight straight years as the South African Latin Dance Champion. That began him down a path that would lead him to joining the cast of Burn the Floor, Strictly Come Dancing and eventually Dancing with the Stars, the show that’s seen him dance with an Olympic athlete, a music legend and a sitcom star. This season, he danced alongside Charo and I caught up with him to talk about his love of the artform, what DWTS has taught him, and what it’s like to teach legends how to dance.
What made you fall in love with dance?
The discipline I got from dancing. Also, the connection a man and women are able to make and that relationship to each other that comes from dancing together. Communicating to another person through dancing is a powerful thing.
In 2014, you joined the cast of pro dancers on Dancing with the Stars but in your first season, you and Lolo Jones didn’t make it beyond the first elimination. What did that experience teach you?
Obviously it was my first time being on the show; I was the new guy on the block. I’d seen it so many times and I knew anything could happen. But the fans had to get to know me. From that first season, I pushed harder and pushed every boundary I could. My first season was a lesson in how to do the show.
You’ve danced with a model (Charlotte McKinney), a singer (Chaka Khan), an actress (Jodie Sweetin) and now Charo. How have these women helped you grow as a man? As an artist?
First of all, every woman I have danced with on the show has a different personality, a different energy and different emotions. I danced with Chaka Khan, who is a legend. She has a vibrant energy about her. She’s like a queen. When I danced with her, I got to learn from her. Who wouldn’t want to learn from a legend like her?! Charlotte is a model and she was young when we did the show. You obviously have to treat your partners differently based on how they learn. I went very far when I was dancing with Jodie and she was a darling, she worked hard and pushed herself. This season, Charo is just energy. Not having a partner last season and coming back into the show with Charo was a whole new energy.
You mentioned Chaka Khan is a legend but Charo is as well in her respective field. How do you set aside the larger than life image of them and work with them on a human level?
I had this question for Charo when I danced with her. I asked, “Have you ever been told what to do in your career?” She said, “No.” I was the first person to tell Charo what do to and give her direction. I’m telling a legend what to do! That was an honor and I didn’t take it for granted. Dancing with Chaka, she’s a legend but she’s also a person I’m teaching how to dance. I see the legend, but I have to look at them as my student who I need to teach how to dance and succeed.
What does DWTS teach you as a professional that you never would have learned somewhere else?
It teaches you to be patient first of all. The show is live and so with that, there are so many things going on. There’s lighting, cameras, the live audience, producers, the dancers, the celebrities in the audience and your partner. You have to find a way to deal with all of that in a way that’s healthy for you and your partner. You can get carried away with it all but from the moment you first meet her, she [his dancing partner] is my responsibility in terms of getting through the show. I have to produce the look, the hair, the makeup, the dancing and make sure she’s okay. I always make sure she feels comfortable.
What is your favorite part of doing the show?
Meeting my partner. From opening the door and meeting her to the journey of rehearsals to the first live show, you learn more about your partner each week. Yes, a Mirrorball trophy would be amazing in the end, but I get that Mirrorball every week spending time with my partner. I get to see them work hard and push themselves. It’s not easy. We teach them every day for 7-days-a-week, for five hours a day and on top of that there are wardrobe fittings and makeup tests and interviews with publications and with the show. It’s a 12-hour-day every day.
When the show isn’t taping, what do you do to challenge yourself and stay inspired?
I take classes of different dance styles like contemporary and jazz. I also have friends who are directors on TV shows and for movies. I meet with them and come up with ideas for my numbers on our show. I run ideas by them in terms of how to make my idea come to life on our live show. I always do my homework with each dance because when it goes live, it’s live. There’s no calling “cut” to start over again. I’ve done the DWTS tour and I also play soccer. I’m actually taking singing lessons too.