Darcey Bussell on Strictly Come Dancing, women, and Looking for Audrey Hepburn

The former dance star loves life away from the barre - but worries today's children lack the dedication that helped make her a big name in the business

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Lithe and radiant, with a beaming smile, Darcey Bussell picks at her lemon muffin delicately and sips her green tea. She does everything with such style and poise it feels like I’m watching a performance, not sharing a hotel breakfast.

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Despite retiring from the ballet world seven years ago, aged 38, her body, even in jeans and a jumper, retains its slender definition. You can’t imagine her spilling food down her dress, tripping over a paving stone in the street, losing her temper and least of all swearing.

She jumps to the defence of her fellow Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman over the recent swearing storm – he was accused of using the “f”-word live on air. “He didn’t swear. Sometimes we say something to each other and it sounds muffled but, no, he didn’t swear. Fortunately I don’t swear normally, so it’s not something I have to worry about.”

Of course she doesn’t, she is grace personified. That’s not to say she’s unopinionated or immune from contradicting herself. All of which we have seen her demonstrate every Saturday night as a judge on the biggest show on TV.

“Generally, with life experience you become more assured about who you are,” she says. “I was very fortunate in my dancing career, I achieved all I could have ever dreamed of, so everything else is a bonus. All my ambitions are ticked off. So I enjoy the challenges that are thrown at me, without the fear of failure.”

Having trained at the Royal Ballet School, Bussell was spotted by Kenneth MacMillan aged 19. A year later she became the youngest ever principal at the Royal Ballet. She danced all the greats and travelled the world to perform with the New York City Ballet and the Kirov. She retired in 2007, after a career that every little girl in a tutu dreams of, so her claim is neither arrogant nor conceited.

She has been open about the fact that one of the reasons she retired was to spend more time with her husband (businessman Angus Forbes) and her daughters Phoebe, 13, and Zoe, ten. The family moved to Australia following her final bow and she has been candid about struggling to figure out who she was outside of dance.

“Women, we want it all! We try to achieve the impossible,” she explains. “We want to think that we can keep our career going and still do everything else. I did feel like I was splitting myself in half, and I admire anybody that can keep it going. You have to have a very good infrastructure around you to make it work. If that’s not always reliable, then it becomes impossible.

Strictly wasn’t something I wanted to do. I got asked a couple of times, turned it down once… But I decided to do it because I love dance and love it being celebrated. I didn’t think about being on live TV. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have done it! I remember watching it back and thinking, ‘Who is that person? That doesn’t sound like me.’ And then all these stupid mannerisms that I didn’t recognise! I don’t blame anybody for criticising me. But I learnt pretty quickly that it was just a matter of ironing out my nerves.

“Luckily, I was used to people analysing every aspect of everything I did, so I have a thick skin. I’ve come to realise that being on Strictly is like being in another theatre company and performing a live production. The only thing I’m now conscious of, as the only woman on the panel, is not to look like the old lady who fancies all the young men on the dance floor! I am happily married with two children…although sometimes I can’t hide it!”

So would she like to see an all-girl final, like last year? “I hope it’s not! I just… find men more interesting to watch! You’ve got Caroline, Pixie, Frankie – they’re very strong, but I’d like Jake to win. I wouldn’t say he was an all-round performer, like Pixie or Simon, but he’s unpredictable, and I love to watch the unpredictable.”

As a dancer from a world that holds the prima ballerina in the highest regard, it’s surprising she enjoys watching the men more. “Well, it’s not all about the prima ballerina – the man is centre stage in ballet, actually. History has the ballerina at the top, but not any more. The men are more important, especially in Russia and America. I mean, the guys always got paid more.

“Women have always been frail, delicate, airy-fairy sylphs. Now it is expected that they are physically as strong as their male counterparts. In that sense it is a reflection of society. Women are much stronger figures in business, politics and all around.”

In addition to Strictly, Bussell will also be on our screens over Christmas with a tribute to her ultimate heroine, Audrey Hepburn. “She was always very real, one of those superstars who never tried to be anything other than who she was. She never tried to reinvent herself. She was just a natural star.

“It’s hard to stay true to yourself and it’s rare, especially today. My daughters love Taylor Swift, who’s a good role model. Miley Cyrus, on the other hand – does anyone know who the real Miley is? If you are a true artist in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, that will shine through. Miley keeps reinventing herself to get attention. If you have a talent, that’s unnecessary.”

This is a trait Bussell wants to instil in her daughters. “I think we are getting a little bit soft on kids. Their options are limitless and the technology is extraordinary. It would be easy to stay locked up in a room on a computer all day but if you’re not physical when you’re a child, when are you going to be? And that’s what worries me. Kids are either naturally lazy or naturally hyper – they have to be motivated into trying things out and committing to them. 

When we lived in Australia, sport was compulsory every Saturday for every child. I think the Government is only just starting to realise how important that is.

“In dance, like any sport, you have to have real dedication and I don’t think kids today are prepared to put in the hard work. It’s not a highly paid career, you’re not going to always get the job, however talented you are. So it’s a question of ‘Do I go into a profession that I’m absolutely passionate about but might not succeed in? And put in the hours to even stand a chance?’

I don’t think it’s a lack of talent, it’s just whether kids are being encouraged to go out and compete…

“The Americans are far better than us in that department. They are raised with the attitude that each and every one of them can be a star. Here, I don’t think we always believe… we’re always surprised and say we’ve been lucky.” 

If anyone should know about the dancing talent around Britain, it’s Bussell. She’s involved in a new project called BBC Young Dancer, as part of her commitment to encourage the next generation. It’s a passion shared by Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general and former CEO of the Royal Opera House. “Dance and music are among the biggest driving forces behind lifting people and making them feel good about life. They do that for me and I hope they can do that for millions more.”

Bussell’s career may be a bonus for her, but she’s the perfect role model in today’s fickle celebrity world. Like Hepburn, she’s a natural star. 

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You can see Darcey Bussell: Looking for Audrey Hepburn on Monday 29 December on BBC1