Mabuse is still afraid of big dogs, especially German Shepherds, because she witnessed the police putting them on black people. She attended a convent school. It had a mixed intake, but a white majority. She remembers an Irish nun named Sister Hawkins, who called the black girls “black witches.” Mabuse writes: ‘She clearly despised us because of our race… it affected the way I saw myself and I started to want to be something I wasn’t. I think the mental conflict it gave me probably affects me to this day.’
Dance was her salvation. She describes it as a way of life for black South Africans: ‘Even at a funeral people find space to dance.’ At the age of 11, Mabuse entered her first competition, wearing a green nylon dress and white shoes, and won the top prize in the junior category. She was on her way.
But the dance world was still divided along racial lines. There were no multiracial partnerships, and white judges always favored white couples. It was Britain that gave her hope, as she and a partner finished 10th out of 190 pairs in a ballroom competition in Blackpool. For the first time, Mabuse’s color hadn’t counted against her.
When she moved from South Africa to Europe, it symbolized freedom: ‘I felt I could breathe.’ Mabuse’s parents instilled confidence in their girls and told them to rise above racism. “We were raised not to ingest that stuff. “Don’t take a second to cry about it. Let’s keep going.” That’s good for survival, but at some point you grow up and say, how can I ignore the way I was treated?
“I hear very often, ‘Oh, play the black card, play the victim card,'” she continues. “But we have to understand that when someone has been through something, you can’t pinpoint the timing of when you think they should be over it or how they should feel. [just because] from your perspective it was a long time ago.’
Despite her outward self-confidence and supportive parents, Mabuse developed ‘a self-esteem of 0.0001 percent’ – partly due to the succession of dance coaches who subjected her to ‘mental torture’. One beat her with a stick; that wasn’t as bad as another who, she recalls, sneered as she was about to hit the floor, “My dog dances better than you.”
In 2009 she had a breakdown. By this time she was German champion, but was gripped by the thought of losing the title. She remembers lying on the couch sobbing. She accepted a role as a judge on Let’s Dance, the German answer to Strictly, and quit dancing. During the lockdown she sought therapy. “I sat there, couldn’t go to work and just felt panic.”