She may be a star of both the stage and screen, but that doesn’t mean actress Kara Tointon is immune to first-night nerves.

“I can still get so nervous,” admits the 30-year-old, who has been carving out her career since the tender age of 1994, when she appeared as an extra on the soap that was to make her name.

And it was a big leap from playing Sonia Fowler’s anonymous school friend in an episode of Eastenders to swinging a full-time gig as Dawn Swann more than a decade later in 2005.

But Kara has more than earned her stripes over the years, taking on everything from panto to musical theatre and movies along the way.

She’s even taken on a role as the patron of Christchurch-based charity the Amelia-Grace Rainbow Fund after meeting the eight-year-old for whom the organisation was named.

Even stage fright can’t get her down.

“You get used to controlling it and using it in a positive way,” she says.

“It does get easier. I actually really love that whole process, even if it is extremely nerve-wracking. You have to ride the wave to get through the bad when you choose to go into acting.”

This strong and optimistic attitude has helped Kara through darker times, including the year after she left the soap in 2009.

Although she considered leaving acting altogether, a winning stint on the 2010 series of Strictly Come Dancing relaunched her career – and made her a household name to boot.

She says: “I always said if I ever did one of those [types of show], it would be Strictly. I thought for an actress it wasn’t necessarily the best thing to do but I decided to do it for my own reasons. It was right for me at that time. At that point, I wasn’t going to act anymore.”

After deciding to take on the challenge of the popular show, Kara was paired with Artem Chigvintsev – a handsome Russian who had just started as a dancer on Strictly. Over the course of the series, the two fell in love to the delight of viewers, and went on to win the famous glitter ball trophy.

But Kara says she had no idea how tough the training would be.

“It’s like an Army bootcamp – or the closest I’ll come to that,” she remembers now.

“I never went to drama school – I did after-school tap, ballet and modern, and I did always love it, but I hadn’t done any other type of dancing and I just didn’t realise how intense it was going to be.”

Six hours a day of gruelling dance training won the pair high marks throughout the competition.

“I’ve never just been able to focus so completely on something so completely random – it was amazing,” Kara says.

“I want Artem and Natalie [Gumede] to win this year. I think they’re doing so fantastically. Artem is such a storyteller and he is the most amazing choreographer, and the amount of work that goes into that is huge – he doesn’t stop. But he’s also a counsellor too for the person he’s teamed up with, so it’s a big thing to do.”

After her success on the show, Kara won plaudits for her performance as Eliza Doolittle in a West End production of Pygmalion and filmed two movies – The Sweeney and Last Passenger.

She has also lent her to support to a number of good causes – including the Rainbow Fund, which was launched by the parents of Amelia-Grace Cooper after her death from a form of childhood cancer in June 2010.

Kara first met the schoolgirl that year when attending the Little Star Awards at London Zoo.

She says: “I was chatting to her parents, Karl and Chantel, and Amelia came running over. I would never have guessed there was anything wrong with her – she was this absolutely beautiful little girl.”

The day before Amelia’s death, Kara visited her in Bournemouth, and later agreed to be the patron of the charity established in her name.

The Amelia-Grace Rainbow Fund will donate presents to children in hospital over Christmas as part of the Bournemouth Daily Echo’s annual toy appeal, now in its 17th year. The event, organised by 92-year-old Phil Carey, ensures that more than 10,000 people in need across Dorset have a present to open under the tree.

Presents can be handed in at the Daily Echo offices in the Dolphin Centre and Richmond Hill. You can also drop them off at Boots stores in the Sovereign Centre, Commercial Road in Bournemouth, the Dolphin Centre in Poole, Wimborne Road in Winton and Saxon Square in Christchurch.

All presents for the Amelia-Grace Rainbow Fund should be handed to the reception at the Daily Echo.