Dame Darcey Bussell is 5 ft 7 inches. In ballet terms, that’s much too tall. Two inches too tall to be exact, if we’re talking ballerina height averages. As a result, Bussell was told to quit early on. “Everybody thinks that when you’ve made it, you’ve had [an] easy trajectory,” she tells me from her airy home office in London. “But it wasn’t like that at all. I suffered with injuries. I was very weak and overly supple. I had all sorts of things that weren’t in my favour. I was told, ‘Oh, you’re going to be too tall so you probably won’t make it. I thought, ‘...Great’.” The word drips with sarcasm.
Bussell was just 20 when she became the Royal Ballet’s youngest-ever principal dancer in 1989, and went on to play all the plum roles. Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Giselle in Giselle! She retired in 2007 at the age of 38, deciding to devote more time to her two daughters. She would then spend seven years judging contestants on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing between 2012 and 2018. Today, the 53-year-old Bussell is working to improve physical education in primary schools. Through her charity Diverse Dance Mix (DDMIX), she provides “inclusive” dance classes for children, and says that her students have reported improvements in their moods, their mental health and their confidence. For every child that has to log roll around the floor of their crumb-littered school lunch hall in PE lessons, Bussell is here to save them. She’s basically a post-pandemic Joe Wicks.
Speaking warmly from behind a chestnut-coloured fringe, Bussell says she is passionate about children’s education, telling me that “the government should endorse more variety in physical education and endorse more hours of it”. She adds: “I think society is kind of pushing us down one funnel, so it’s really important that we open kids’ views and give them other ways of learning.” On 29 March, Bussell will give a talk at Bett 2023, a leading education convention show, where she’ll discuss using the arts to improve student and teacher wellbeing.
As Bussell tells me her mission statement, I realise there’s a much bigger reason why she’s 5, 6, 7, 8-ing to classes full of children when she could be, you know, putting her feet up after dancing for more than two decades straight. “Ballet was a revelation for me,” she explains. “[It helped me] know that I could succeed. I was very dyslexic, and I really found that I had to find my niche somewhere [outside of the classroom].” In a sense, she’s paying it all forward now.
Surprisingly, Bussell says she wasn’t a natural dancer. “My mum sent me [to ballet lessons] because I had very knock knees. She was also apparently a giant. “There had been accomplished dancers in the ballet world a few years [before me] that were taller. But they were rare,” she says. “I had to really break that mould and that was difficult.”
Hold on. I thought Bussell was the mould. For young girls like me who pranced around their local community hall every Saturday morning, Bussell was ballet royalty. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to be just like her. I aspired to be 5 ft 7. I wrote persuasive letters to my mum insisting why I should go to the Royal Ballet school. I tell Bussell that she made me want to dance. I don’t tell her that I designed my signature based on her handwriting – I figure that might be a bit weird. But it blows my mind to think that Bussell was somewhat controversial when she first began dancing. She tells me that she stuck out back then.
It was changing some of the attitudes to classical dance being this elitist art form
“It’s funny growing up in that intense world,” she says. The idea was that you had to be taken seriously, and reflect that in your demeanour – be passionate, downbeat and severe. “But I just wasn’t that person! It was really difficult. I wanted to laugh at my mistakes and joke about things.”
Bussell says she realised that classical ballet wouldn’t “evolve as an art” if the dancers couldn’t connect with the public. And so she quite literally grande jete’d onto our screens at every opportunity. A notable appearance came in 1998, when she danced alongside a tutu-clad Dawn French in an episode of The Vicar of Dibley. “I had no idea that Dawn and Jennifer Saunders were big fans of the dance world,” she says. “The hardest thing was just keeping a straight face.”
Her ascendant fame led her to appear on the covers of magazines and modelling for brands such as Burberry. “I suppose I was a little out of my comfort zone,” she admits. “But I decided that if people were asking, I was going to say ‘yes’. I would do the photoshoots and try all these different things.” Bussell’s elegance and charisma also got her spotted by Hollywood. Quite bizarrely, she did a screen test in 1995 for the remake of the Audrey Hepburn classic Sabrina. Julia Ormond ended up getting the part, but Bussell got so far into the audition process that she had to kiss Harrison Ford during a screen test.
“I had kissed men on stage in different ballets and so I kind of put myself in that box,” she says. “I mean, I had to sort of take away [the fact] that it was Harrison Ford. It was quite daunting.” She says that Ford was “supportive” and “helpful”, having noticed she was clearly very nervous and not used to reciting entire scripts – learning choreography was more her jam. “He pretended he didn’t know the lines and things like that [to help me out]. I still have the videotape of it! Even my kids have seen it.”
Her radical move into the public sphere didn’t come without pushback from traditional ballet-heads, though. “Plenty felt that it wasn’t the image of a ballerina,” she recalls. “And I think we try to hold on to these very precious [ideas] growing up… I had pictures of Russian ballerinas and French dancers on my wall, and they were slightly untouchable – these pieces of magic.” But, she tells me, times change. “There was [eventually] a lot of support because we realised that it was opening doors. And it was changing some of the attitudes to classical dance being this elitist art form.”
She also says that while she’s happy that the physical stereotypes around ballet dancers – namely that they’re all thin and white – have changed over time, too, she gets frustrated by the overall scrutiny placed on dancers’ bodies. “I always say that if you look at a marathon runner, you see the distances that they travel. You go ‘no wonder they look like that’. But as a dancer, you don’t see the distances we travel because we’re in a studio.” That means it’s easy to overlook the sheer amount of work that goes into performing ballet. “When we’re exactly like that athlete!”
After her retirement from ballet, Bussell joined Strictly’s judging panel, alongside Craig Revel Horwood, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli. When she announced her departure from the show in 2019, she said she wanted her daughters to remember her “as a classical dancer and not just a judge on Strictly”. It led to much speculation in the press. Today, though, Bussell tells me that she just never felt comfortable with the specifics of the role. “A reality show of any kind, when you’re given a very short time to reflect and to give your critique, is incredibly difficult,” she says.
Plus, she adds, where she feels most useful is when she’s in one of her dance classes, jumping in and really knowing that she’s making a difference. “As a coach, I’m much more hands-on. To be with dancers on the dancefloor is my natural instinct. It’s very difficult just to sit still, basically.”
Dame Darcey Bussell DBE will be appearing at Bett 2023 on 29th March to talk about using the arts to improve student and teacher wellbeing: https://uk.bettshow.com