Johannes Radebe: Dancing in heels on Strictly was my way of coming out

As I put on the patent black leather high heeled boots, I felt full of nerves. 

I was about to go out and perform a Strictly professionals group routine for the Sunday results show, just like any other week – but this time was different. 

Not only was I the first male dancer to perform in heels in the show’s history, but this dance was also my way of coming out. 

As a young boy in South Africa, my family clearly knew I was ‘special’ – in the best way possible – but they never acted like there was anything different about me. I am grateful they never imposed ideas about sexuality on me – be that straight or gay – and I was allowed to just be a child. 

While I witnessed homophobia in the outside world and experienced bullying, my home and the dance studio were my refuge. It was a safe haven where I could just be me. 

Because of this nurturing and supportive atmosphere, where I’ve been loved and embraced my whole life, I’ve never felt like I had to formally come out to my mum or my friends. 

But I knew that as soon as I put those heels on and danced with my red ‘Pose’ fan to a rendition of Blondie’s Rapture, that everyone else would find out I was gay. 

And they did! I had distant uncles from remote areas of South Africa who had previously asked why I didn’t have a wife get in touch to say they understood why now. 

The dance itself was an overwhelmingly beautiful, powerful moment for me. 

Even though I grew up with my mum’s unwavering love, I still felt shame. I saw my friends come out to their parents and be disowned and rejected. I witnessed children become homeless overnight because they were caught doing something with a member of the same sex. 

When you grow up around that vile hate, discrimination and betrayal, it has an impact. It’s not one I understood at the time, but l can see it on reflection. 

I am so grateful for the change in attitudes nowadays. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would be possible for me to perform in heels, representing the ballroom world and its fierceness. To be on mainstream TV – on a global platform – being authentically and organically me meant more than I can put into words. 

I knew that that moment was going to resonate with the masses. I knew it was going to be a big achievement for all of us in the community. 

I knew it because it was exactly the kind of entertainment I would have wanted to see growing up. As a child in my small township in South Africa, there was no representation or stories about people like me. 

If I had seen someone like me on screen, I don’t think I would have been so timid growing up. 

After that performance, I flew home to South Africa to see my mum. I sat her down and we had a conversation about me being gay – the first we ever had. 

It was a defining moment with the one person who has always loved me unconditionally. I told her that I didn’t want to bring shame on her and my family, and she assured me it was wrong of me to think that I could ever do that. My mum told me nothing would change how much she loved me. 

I’ve always known that, because she’d always shown me – it’s why I urge all parents of special children to assure their kids and tell them often how much they love and value them. 

Unfortunately, not everyone gets that acceptance – and to them I would say that blood does not always mean family. If your family does not support you, your endeavours and who you are,  there is a community out there who will. 

You don’t need to feel lost or alone because there is a place for you, and people who will be there for you. We are here for you and can guide you through. 

In the LGBT+ community, we’ve all had to deal with some form of discrimination. Every gay person will tell you that they’ve had to know when to run away from a situation and how to respond to unfortunate circumstances around them. We have proven that we can adapt to anything that’s thrown at us – especially when we have each other. 

Dance for me was one of the places I would run to – literally, as soon as school finished each day. There, I made friends, I was creative, I could express how I felt through music and I didn’t have to communicate out loud. 

And it brought my family pride. It gave me the best feeling, so I went every day. 

Dance has given me the most beautiful journey. I now perform on the best show in the world where the whole team ‘get’ me, and they support everybody. 

Since that dance in heels, I’ve gone on to perform the show’s first same-sex partner dance with Graziano – which was so special and I couldn’t have been happier to be the face of it. Then Nicola and Katya did us all proud when they were paired up in the most recent series.

To be surrounded by people that are all about change is beautiful and important. 

I’m now going on tour with my show, Freedom. It’s personal; I was born on Freedom Day in South Africa and the show is for everybody, about our freedom to be who we are. It pays homage to the people who have paved the way for me and it features a diverse cast of fabulous talent. 

It includes huge party anthems and I hope people come out and celebrate. We are going to have a blast. 

Performing it, I remember that first moment in heels and the boost it gave to my self esteem. I remember how it helped me sit in my own skin. 

It’s something I wish I could share with my younger self. 

I would sit him down and say, ‘Listen young man, relax. You’re going to grow up to be tall, fierce, strong and you don’t need to be ashamed of anything. You are perfect as you are. 

‘Go out into the world and live your best life’. 

Johannes’ show Freedom is on tour from 2022 and tickets are available to book now 

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