On the Strictly Come Dancing launch night in September, when the judges made their grand entrance, one member of the foursome was absent. ‘As she’s received a very special honour, we thought we’d honour her with a very special entrance,’ announced Tess Daly, before her co-host, Claudia Winkleman, continued: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dame Darcey Bussell!’
In glided Darcey, a vision in floor-length fuchsia, flanked by two male dancers. But through her show-stopping smile peeped discomfort: an apologetic glance then a bashful shake of the head as Tess, Claudia and fellow judge Bruno Tonioli dropped to one knee, jokingly pretending to worship the ground she walked on.
‘It is awkward, naturally,’ says Darcey, 49, of the damehood she was given by the Queen in May for her services to dance over a 30-year career. ‘It’s very surreal and it came as a total surprise. I’m incredibly honoured to be recognised in that way, but it’s nothing to do with my own achievements. I was only able to achieve half of it through all the collaborations, so, really, it’s a testament to everybody involved and their dedication as well.’
Darcey’s gratitude to the people and brands she has worked with over the years inspired Evolved, predominantly a picture book documenting many of her creative collaborations, from her early days as The Royal Ballet’s youngest-ever principal dancer, aged 20, to her hectic ‘retirement’.
See Darcey's favourite images from Evolved
Born Marnie Mercedes Darcey Pemberton Crittle, in London, in 1969, Darcey took the surname Bussell, at the age of three, from her stepfather, Australian dentist Philip. A self-confessed ‘clumsy child’, she was sent to ballet classes at five, and began training in earnest at 13 at the Royal Ballet Lower School, progressing to the Upper School before joining the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in 1987.
While delighting ballet audiences in such classical roles as Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Manon and Juliet, to her farewell performance in the Song of the Earth in 2007, she brought ballet to a wider public by being so visible. She modelled for the likes of Mulberry, posed for Vogue, was the subject of a documentary titled Britain’s Ballerina, even guest-starred on The Vicar of Dibley.
She is remarkable for professional boldness, but, ‘You have to be brave to find out about yourself,’ she reasons, ‘and I’m really proud of that.’ She ‘absolutely’ believes that with fear comes growth. ‘As soon as it becomes comfortable, it’s not enough. That’s the bravest bit, seeing something through, however difficult and uncomfortable a situation might have been, where you’re a little bit out of the box of your own comfort zone.’
As a dancer, Darcey was a perfectionist, once admitting she had never felt totally happy with any of her Swan Lake performances. Maybe retiring at 38, when still at peak fitness, was strategic: a desire to be eternalised at the top of her game, rather than being remembered, imperfectly, as someone who was once a good dancer.
‘No, no!’ she protests. ‘I wanted to go out gracefully. I had a goal to go out feeling that I could keep going and, maybe because I felt that, I was able to do more commercial things. I made sure I made the most of the opportunities thrown at me because I didn’t know if there were going to be any more.’
Eleven years on, Darcey’s CV is rich and diverse. In 2012 she became president of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), and choreographed a dance for the closing ceremony of the summer Olympics. She has written children’s books, presented TV documentaries, launched her dance fitness classes, DDMIX, always with the one goal – to inject ‘the attributes of dance into society in a different way’.
It is just as well that she enjoys ‘keeping busy’: Strictly, at this time of year, is relentless. ‘It’s all-encompassing, like being back in The Royal Ballet. The work that goes into producing that show is extraordinary. I am incredibly respectful that I’m part of that engine that is driving really great purpose and feeling about dance.’
Yet even now she finds the live shows ‘scary’. You wonder how she coped at the start, with the added stress of armchair critics bemoaning her Sloaney use of ‘yah’, something she blames on nerves. ‘I was stepping into a totally different field. I’d always been the dancer and the muse and the one being worked on, so it was very different.’
Did the negative headlines make her want to chuck in the towel?
‘No, it didn’t make me feel that I wasn’t right for the show. I think it was just about finding myself.’
Which contestant is her money on to take home this year’s glitter ball?
‘I think we’ve got a real problem on our hands because the variety is brilliant. I should think out of about five of them, any one could be a winner. It will be really interesting to see how it unfolds.’
Interesting indeed. You can always count on Strictly for drama. Three weeks into the new series, comedian Seann Walsh and dancer Katja Jones were the latest to succumb to the ‘Strictly curse’, blamed for causing countless broken relationships.
By contrast, Darcey is positively blessed. She will soon celebrate 22 years of marriage to her Australian investment banker husband, Angus Forbes, with whom she has two daughters, Phoebe, 17, and Zoe, 14. So what’s the secret to sustaining a strong relationship when your work demands close physical contact with another?
‘Communication, basically,’ she says, and then pauses, reluctant to be drawn on this headline-grabbing story, before expanding a little. ‘Just keeping in touch with each other, being part of each other’s lives and enjoying that time together.’
Conversation switches to ballet’s own #MeToo scandals. Over the past year, ballerinas have detailed abuse at the hands of directors, from the Paris Opera Ballet to the New York City Ballet, where male dancers were accused of sharing pictures of naked ballerinas, abusing drugs and degrading women.
Darcey denies encountering such harassment. ‘No, I haven’t had any problem at all within my own career. If anything, I think the women dominate the ballet world, very, very clearly, and that has been through history as well. I think the guys have had the hard end of the stick, but then in classical ballet, fortunately, Kenneth MacMillan [artistic director of The Royal Ballet from 1970 to 1977] came along and gave male dancers the opportunity to shine.’
Darcey’s years of gruelling training – she’d practise for 13 hours a day, six days a week – are over, and as she edges towards 50, life is running at a slower pace. ‘You mellow with age, naturally. I think also that spirit within you mellows. I have a much better understanding of balance in my life and understanding that things have to give,’ she says, adding that being a mum has also helped. ‘You do throw things out of perspective when you get wrapped up within work, and I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to have a family. It does give me great purpose and balance. I really enjoy being a mother.’
Darcey’s own childhood in Notting Hill, west London, was ‘very fortunate’. The block of flats where she lived with her mum, Andrea, a former model, and stepfather, Phil, was close to parks where Darcey played every afternoon. She also enrolled in ‘every after-school club going’, as well as her ballet lessons. For Darcey, who was the victim of school bullying, dance was a lifeline.
‘I think every kid comes across some sort of bullying in their life,’ she says, ‘but I was very dyslexic and gripped hold of dance as an amazing tool that could give me confidence. If I hadn’t grabbed that, I would never have been the person I am today, or as brave as I am today.’
Over the past two years, Darcey has rolled out her nationwide programme of dance-fit classes in schools, and spoken in Parliament, calling for dance to be a part of the curriculum. At the other end of the scale, through RAD’s Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing project, she is on a mission to get older novice dancers learning skills, from classical ballroom to musical theatre, convinced of the social and physical rewards. ‘I don’t know why we associate age with everything slowing down and coming to a grinding halt. Dance, as we know through decades, has been a wonderfully social thing to get people together at the dance halls, and why they haven’t survived is an absolute crime. If I can get those back in action, I’ll be incredibly happy.’
After her retirement, Darcey and Angus moved the family to Sydney, Australia, where for the first year she stopped dancing. The sudden and prolonged lack of endorphins had a profound effect on her mental state. ‘I realised it wasn’t going to be a profession, but I still had to do some sort of dance,’ recalls Darcey, whose new BBC Two documentary, Darcey Bussell: Dancing To Happiness, investigated why dance, more than any other exercise, has such a positive effect on mood and behaviour.
‘If dance was in a drug form, if it was a pill, it would be a blockbuster,’ she says. ‘It’s not about just creating a skill and dedication, it’s about how it affects you emotionally, how it helps you to express. This documentary gave me even more hope that dance will be seen socially as an important factor of people’s lives and not just as entertainment that’s fun and a laugh.’
These days, Darcey shuns any ‘extreme fitness’ methods in favour of 20 minutes’ exercise every other day ‘at best’, a mixture of her own dance workouts, Pilates and yoga. ‘My body is muscular and still very strong for a 50-year-old,’ she declares, anticipating her birthday next April. ‘I have to keep it moving. If I don’t, I seize up and I feel a lot older. I understand how important it is to keep your body moving.’
After Christmas, the Strictly buzz continues with a live UK arena tour, which sees head judge Shirley Ballas on the panel alongside Darcey, Bruno and Craig Revel Horwood. Darcey’s hopes for the New Year are simple – to present more documentaries, to raise more awareness of dance, to work harder to have dance fitness central to PE in more schools, to support the 16 charities she patrons and to continue coaching at The Royal Ballet. Just a quiet 2019 then.
Evolved, by Darcey Bussell (published by Hardie Grant) is on sale now, £30. Buy this book at a discount from the Saga Bookshop