Darcey Bussell’s cab is late. We are standing on the pavement outside the photographer’s studio but the driver apparently can’t find us until, that is, Bussell demonstrates her failsafe technique for hailing a taxi.
Balancing on one foot on the edge of the kerb she gracefully extends a slender, perfectly toned, bright pink denim-clad leg high into the air. “Works every time,” she smiles cheekily, as the taxi screeches to a halt in front of us.
The retired prima ballerina, who pirouetted into the national consciousness when she was plucked from the corps de ballet at 19 by Kenneth MacMillan, is once again taking centre stage but this time on primetime TV as a new judge on Strictly Come Dancing. But it isn’t this role that has ensured her legs, at the age of 43, are in perfect shape.
Despite having walked away from the Royal Ballet nearly five years ago, Bussell was recently lured out of retirement for one very special final performance. Having vowed to remove herself from the ballet world to experience life away from the dance floor – “I wanted to feel confident outside that world, as myself… whatever myself is…” – she very reluctantly agreed to dust off her pointe shoes and take on the role of the dying Olympic flame at the Closing Ceremony in August.
Her reluctance was at least partly because the idea of getting back into a leotard in front of millions was somewhat daunting. It certainly wasn’t because she didn’t want to dance (her abstinence only lasted a few months before she started sneaking into the back of dance classes at her local gym, taking on anything from lyrical jazz to zumba).
“I had a year to get in shape, but I hadn’t danced for nearly four years. My body changed so much when I stopped dancing I became soft! And finding the courage to get into an all-in-one leotard was a big deal. There were a lot of things I had to get over. With three months to go I was on the verge of calling Kim [Gavin, the ceremony’s director] and telling him to find someone else. I totally lost it, but looking back I am so glad I didn’t chicken out!”
For one thing it was the perfect preparation for her new role. “It is something great for me to draw on for Strictly because I can really empathise with the contestants getting into the tiny costumes, waking up unable to move with every muscle in my body aching, being absolutely terrified before going on stage – those are all things I have now experienced.”
Bussell is relentlessly smiley and positive. Her forehead is so remarkably unlined that it seems perfectly plausible she has never had occasion to frown. In fact, having made a brief appearance on Strictly back in 2009 her saccharine performance led to a lukewarm response when it was announced that she was taking Alesha Dixon’s seat on the panel.
This hasn’t phased Bussell at all. It is easy to forget that the perky prima ballerina worked her way up in a milieu depicted so brutally by Natalie Portman in the film Black Swan; a competitive, exhausting, hyper-critical world in which every step, breath and hair out of place is analysed and scrutinised.
“When I was starting out at the Royal Ballet school at 13,” she recalls with a very faint furrow of her brow, “I was told by one of my teachers that ballet was not the career for me. She took me aside after class one day and said that ballet wasn’t going to suit me and I obviously couldn’t handle the pressure, so I should just give up. I was devastated at the time but looking back it was probably the best thing anyone has ever said to me. It was the kick I needed to really dig my heels in and work hard and I think everyone needs that kick sometimes to get them motivated and focused.”
Does that mean that this time round she will be more than just the sweet to fellow judge Revel Horwood’s sour? “It was odd when I came in last time,” she admits, “because I was only brought in at the end, by which time the contestants were all very good. It would have been wrong to have been too critical at that point.
“Now that I am in from the start it will be very different. When you have been brought up in a world where everything you do is scrutinised and judged you have to develop a thick skin, which is what I am going to encourage the contestants to do. They have to learn to take in our comments and thrive on them.
“What I am looking forward to is spotting people with potential and being tough on them in order to bring it out of them. If they don’t improve and get better week on week, then they’re out as far as I’m concerned.”
CRAIG on the WALTZ: “In the 1990s the waltz was often banned because of how close the men and women were in hold. How far we’ve come!
CRAIG on the CHARLESTON: “During Prohibition in the 1920s everyone took cocaine because alcohol was banned, so the charleston was manic and full of energy – which I love.”
CRAIG on the LINDY HOP: “American soldiers brought the lindy hop over during the war – it took England by storm, although all the flicks and kicks led to lost of injuries.”
CRAIG on the TWIST: “The 1960s were all about liberation and free love and the twist embodied all of that – it was the first dance where women danced alone, full of fun and abandon.”