Kristina Rihanoff: From Vladivostok to Northampton

The former Strictly star tells NN Journal about her journey from Russia to the Midlands

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By Natalie Bloomer

Kristina Rihanoff’s early childhood in the East Russian city of Vladivostok was a happy one. Once dubbed the Russian San Francisco due to its hills and bridges, the city, which is a nine hour flight from Moscow, was home to Kristina and her family until she was around 12-years-old.

The former Strictly Come Dancing star says dance and music was a huge part of her life from a very young age.

“I think I first started dancing in Kindergarten, in Russia ballroom dancing was the number one sport for youngsters then. Children would be travelling all over the country competing in competitions. 

“Life was very different to now but I had a great childhood. After school activities were very much encouraged, and it was all paid for by the state as part of our education.”

She lived with her parents, grandmother and aunt who was only a few years older than Kristina and more like a sister. Both parents worked as engineers but her father was also a musician playing in a band at weddings and other events. 

Growing up during the Soviet Union era, Kristina says most foreign music was banned, however due to the country’s close relationship with Communist Cuba, Cuban music was allowed. 

“My dad and his friends would play all these big Cuban songs, the type that Latin dancers would compete to. I loved it.”

When she started school aged six, Kristina’s parents received a letter to say she had been selected to join a dance school. From there her love for dancing and competing really took hold.

“That’s where it all began. I would be travelling around the country with my teachers competing. I just loved it.”

But then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The country was in turmoil but so too was Kristina’s family life. Her beloved grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died shortly after, she and her parents moved out of the family home but then lost their jobs as engineers and later divorced. 

“So much was happening at that time. It was really really tough. I stopped dancing and my mum was working three jobs to get by, you don’t realise until you’re an adult yourself just how hard it must have been for them. People lost everything.”

It was several years before Kristina returned to dancing but she soon rediscovered her passion for it and at the age of 15 was helping to teach young children. 

“I couldn’t believe it when I first started earning a small wage, I was like ‘this is amazing, I’m 15 and making my own money’. It meant I could start helping my mum out as well.”

She decided that she wanted to be a dance teacher and by the age of 20 she was running a dance club and travelling with her students to Moscow and other Russian cities for competitions. 

Then came a call from a teacher she knew who had moved to America. She was asking Kristina to move over to the States to teach in a dance school.

“She said there was a dance school in New York looking for Russian speaking teachers. It was an amazing opportunity but I was only 22 and still wanted to compete. She said it was just a teaching position and she didn’t have anybody for me to partner with so I turned it down. All my friends thought I was completely crazy.”

But she called again a few months later and told her about an opportunity in Washington. There was a large Russian community there with lots of children who wanted to dance. This time there was also a professional dancer looking for a partner.

“That’s how I left Russia, I didn’t speak a word of English but I went there and stayed with the family of my new dance partner. They made sure I felt comfortable and safe. I did English classes and started working with the kids straight away.”

Within a few months she was competing again and finding success in national dance competitions. She became well-known within the dancing world and was later asked to take part in a new TV Show Dancing With the Stars (The American version of Strictly Come Dancing). Again, despite surprise from her friends, she turned down the opportunity.

“At first I thought I’d made the right decision because the first series wasn’t very successful but then came the second and it did much better, I saw lots of people I knew through competitions becoming really famous. I thought ‘what have I done?’”

She continued competing at a high level but at the age of 29, her partner decided to quit. She thought her career was over. 

“I remember sitting on my driveway crying my eyes out. I couldn’t start all over again with somebody else, it would take years to get to that level again. I had nothing, anything I’d made financially was put back into dancing for costumes and travelling.”

She had decided to go back to just teaching when an opportunity came to join Strictly Come Dancing in the UK. This time Kristina jumped at the chance. 

“I thought I would just do one season but all these years later I’m still here in the UK. My time on Strictly was amazing but you can never be prepared for suddenly having that sort of public profile, it was very weird for me. All of a sudden everyone wants to know what you’re doing and who you’re dating.”

She was part of the hit show between 2008 and 2015, making it into the finals on more than one occasion.

Kristina now lives in Northampton with her partner, the former Saints player Ben Cohen who competed with her on Strictly in 2013. Shortly before the pandemic the couple opened the Soo Yoga fitness and wellbeing centre in Sol Central in the town centre. 

“Northampton is very different to where I have lived before but it is a lovely place to have a family [the pair have a young daughter together and Ben has two children from a previous relationship], there is lots of green space. It’s a great place to be for us.”

The centre offers various classes and Kristina says they wanted it to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, no matter what a person’s age or ability. 

“Soo Yoga is our other baby but it’s been very tough, we were open for nine months and then had to close for 18 because of Covid. It’s worrying because we invested everything into it and then had to close for so long. It affects everything - your mental and physical health. I just hope we are coming out of that period now and can really get going with it. 

“We will always work our hardest and put everything into it. We’re both sports people so our attitude will always be ‘it’s not over until it’s over’.”

You can find out more about Soo Yoga here: https://www.sooyoga.com/