Darcey Bussell: a life in dance

Everything you need to know about the new Strictly judge's career in ballet and TV

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Darcey Bussell: a life in dance
Written By
Tom Cole

Darcey Bussell, the former ballerina who has been announced as Alesha Dixon’s replacement on the Strictly Come Dancing judging panel, was born in London on 27 April 1969.

She began her professional dance training at the Arts Educational School and enrolled at the Royal Ballet Lower School at the age of 13, before graduating to Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in 1987.

Her earliest idols were not professional dancers but movie stars from the golden age of Hollywood, a fact she revealed to Radio Times in 2011: “As a little girl, I didn’t dream of being a ballet dancer, I dreamt of being a movie star like Ginger Rogers and dancing with Fred Astaire. I used to watch the Sunday double-bills on TV and long to be part of what seemed a perfect Disneyland world.”

However, ballet was to prove her calling, and in 1988 she was given the lead role in Kenneth MacMillan’s production of The Prince in Pagodas, a move that caught the attention of The Royal Ballet, which made her its youngest ever principal when the show was first performed in 1989.

But the production that set her on her way to stardom was beset with problems. "It took nearly nine months before we performed the show because Kenneth was unwell, so the build-up was very scary,” she said. “And then three days before the first night, the Royal Ballet went on strike!”

Despite the setbacks, the show’s choreographer saw her destined for big things. MacMillan said of the young ballerina in 1990: "Dancers of Bussell's ability emerge only once in a decade. She will be an international star. She can do anything you throw at her, upside down and back to front."

He was to be proven right, as Bussell proceeded to master such roles as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Manon in Manon, and Giselle in Giselle over the course of her career.

She won the Evening Standard Ballet Award in 1990, and was voted dancer of the year by Dance and Dancers Magazine in the same year. Still more acclaim was forthcoming in 1991, when she received the Variety Club of Great Britain's Sir James Garreras Award for the most promising newcomer.

During this run of award-winning performances, Bussell made her American dance debut in June 1993, performing the pas de deux from Agon with the New York City Ballet.

In spite of the pressure brought on by awards and her international success, Bussell maintained an upbeat personal philosophy about her dancing. She said: “Dance has to be enjoyable. You have to feel confident when you’re watching someone; they must look like they’re having the time of their life.”

A portrait of Bussell was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and unveiled in 1994, the same year in which her first book, a guide to ballet dancing for girls called The Young Dancer, was published.

Made an OBE for her services to dance in 1995, she published a second book on ballet in 1996 and married Angus Forbes in 1997. In 1998, Bussell danced with the Kirov at St. Petersburg, performing Nikiya in La Bayadere, and made two notable TV appearances: one as the subject of a BBC Omnibus documentary and another as herself in an episode of The Vicar of Dibley, in which she danced with Dawn French.

Her first daughter, Phoebe Olivia, was born in 2001, despite Bussell’s concerns about her ability to become a mother. “Dancers are like marathon runners, who also find it difficult to fall pregnant,” she said. “Maybe because our bodies are so finely tuned, and then there’s the temptation to put it off because your career is so short.”

However, she returned to dance with aplomb in the same year, taking the lead role in The Nutcracker, which she described as “one of the most exhausting parts in the repertoire.” Bussell also caused a media frenzy on April Fools Day of 2001 when she made a joke announcement on her website claiming that she was due to appear in a James Bond film.

Further controversy came her way in 2002 when she appeared at a motor show clad in black leather (pictured left) to promote a new car, though Bussell laughed off the critics who accused her of bringing ballet into disrepute. 

“Why can’t I wear leather?” she asked. “I never wanted to be typecast as the pretty ballerina, and I really enjoyed working with all those different people.

"Traditionally the ballet world was a bit like the royal family: they were watched, but not spoken to; distance was part of the magic. I don’t think I was destroying the magic; hopefully I was opening it up a little bit.”

She was aboard Concorde’s last ever flight to London in 2003, and danced the première of Sylvia by Léo Delibes at the Royal Opera House in 2004, the same year as the birth of her second daughter, Zoe Sophia.

Bussell announced her retirement as the Royal Ballet’s principal in 2006, though she stayed with the company as a "guest principal artist" before retiring from ballet altogether in 2007.

“Dance is a mad kind of physical addiction. You keep telling yourself that you’re invincible, that you can go on for ever, but of course you can’t,” she told Radio Times.

“I did all the heavy roles, not just the delicate ones, and I was pushed from a young age. I had two operations on my ankles and didn’t want to be crippled when I’m older.”

She was made a CBE in the 2006 Queen's Birthday Honours List, again in honour of her services to dance, and published her first children’s book, The Magic Ballet Shoes, in 2009.

In the same year, she appeared as a guest judge on Strictly Come Dancing, bringing the expertise gleaned from her long and acclaimed ballet career to bear on the show’s dancers. 

Speaking to Radio Times before her first appearance on the show, she said: “I will not be shy about criticising them and saying, ‘That didn’t work. It hasn’t improved. You need to do a lot more work before you come back next week.’”

And while appearing on the show, she also took the opportunity to flex her dancing muscles during the competition's semi-finals, performing an acclaimed jive routine with professional dancer Ian Waite:

Bussell proved a hit with viewers and judges alike during her three-week tenure on the programme, so much so that Craig Revel Horwood reportedly campaigned for her to become a permanent member of the panel from the moment Alesha Dixon announced her departure.

Speaking about her new appointment today, Bussell said: "I had such a lovely experience in 2009 when I was a guest judge that coming on board now feels very natural.

"Strictly combines quality dance and great entertainment, which is such a positive for everybody involved. I am very excited and really looking forward to being part of the Strictly team."

And with such a glittering and varied life’s experience behind her, we can’t wait to see what she’ll bring to the show when it returns to our screens this autumn.

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