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Darcey Bussell: Strictly retired, but keen to find new moves

From prima ballerina to judging salsa on prime-time TV. It's all within the repertoire of a star who is also writing books and designing dancewear

Darcey Bussell is dancing royalty. If you're talking ballet stars, the former Royal Ballet principal is up there with Margot Fonteyn as one of the all-time greats.

So imagine my shock when it turns out that despite my two left feet, we have something in common when it comes to the dance floor. Like me, and most of the rest of Britain, the closest Bussell had come to the salsa before being asked to judge Strictly Coming Dancing was after hours in a nightclub.

"People think, when you've been a professional dancer all your life, that you're going to have tried every sort of style, and I kind of felt embarrassed that I'd never ever tried ballroom dancing," she confides. "I mean, I muck around in nightclubs maybe after a performance, with Carlos Acosta, and I love watching tango, but generally I've never had time to dabble in other styles." That's Acosta as in the Cuban dance god, so I imagine the pair managed admirably, but I still find her confession humbling.

And that is why Bussell, who hung up her pointes two years ago, has been taking dance classes. Latin American dance classes, to be precise. She got to put her new-found expertise to the test last night when she joined Strictly's judging panel for the show's final three episodes. We meet a couple of days before her judging debut and already she's nervous. Not of being on the show, but what it will feel like not to be dancing.

"When you've been a dancer all your life, you just want to get up and try out all the moves – you're not very good at sitting still." She laughs. "I get very enthusiastic and very passionate about whoever is doing an amazing job or working incredibly hard. But it is very odd to be on the other side."

Although Bussell danced professionally on the show two seasons ago, so far this time round her name has been taken mostly in vain. And not just by the legions of fans still loyal to the memory of Arlene Phillips. Bussell says: "Len [Goodman, a fellow judge] is always commenting, 'Don't dance like Darcey Bussell, all hoighty-toighty and posh.'" She laughs again, so clearly she isn't too offended.

As well as her slight dig at Goodman, Bussell had one other criticism to make of the series so far. "I'm really upset that there's been so much injury. I think it's because the standards have been so much higher, so the professionals have really pushed them." One of her early favourites, the long jumper Jade Johnson, had to drop out injured last month. "Generally you always push somebody if you think they have the ability to do it, but [the contestants] haven't always got the fitness. Even though they've probably got the rhythm, it's still unnatural to them. With Jade, it was a different fitness. The way her body moves and everything, and I don't think they appreciated that."

Bussell has had to rely on DVDs to keep up with the show's latest twists – quite literally in the case of several ankles; shortly after retiring she moved, with her Australian banker husband, Angus Forbes, to Sydney, where she now tries to play the role of eco-mum to her daughters Phoebe, eight, and Zoë, six.

It's fair to say she is finding her new off-stage roles considerably harder than her on-stage ones. For one thing, being green and flying halfway around the world for work hardly go hand in hand. "The flying doesn't help," she admits "But it's very difficult when your career has been in one country and you still need to earn money."

Her eco-philosophy is certainly at odds with her lifestyle. Like the skiing holiday she craved so badly on retirement – dancers live swaddled in a permanent layer of cotton wool, their limbs are so delicate and valuable, so doing something crazy like hurtling down a mountain was out until she quit the Royal Ballet. Or her Louis Vuitton handbag that she gestures to, sheepishly, just after telling me "materialistic things are probably our biggest problem" when it comes to changing global consumption habits.

She says being a mum has prompted her to think more about the world's future. "I don't want our daughters to look at us in 10 years' time and say, 'What did you do?' My only problem is making sure that we do something. I think generally it's about consuming ... it's about the things you think you need. We obviously want to enjoy the good things in life, but it's just about keeping it in perspective."

Bussell will be hoping people don't cut back on consuming her latest retirement project: a range of girls' dancewear. The star-sequined tutus, ballet shoes, leotards and princess crowns would not rank on many people's must-haves, although try telling that to a ballet-crazed seven year old.

For Bussell, the range represents the first step towards what she'd most like to do next: costume design. She hopes that her new position on the board of the Sydney Dance Company will give her the opportunity to do just that, although they haven't asked her yet.

Moving to Australia was not the wrench for Bussell that it might have been. Although she was born and brought up in London's Notting Hill Gate, her biological father, John Crittle, was Australian, as was her adoptive father, Philip Bussell.

Not that she talks or even thinks about her biological father these days. Crittle walked out on her mother, the former model and actress Andrea Williams, when Bussell – or Marnie Mercedes Darcey Pemberton Crittle as she was known then – was just three. The dancer never forgave him, refusing the opportunity for a reconciliation two years before his death from emphysema in 2000.

At 40, that model heritage is still more than evident in Bussell's tiny frame, although she would claim she's filled out in the past two years. Certainly, she's "not sinewy any more" as she puts it, although that's surely for the best given she was always very wiry for her 5ft 7in frame.

For all that Bussell represents the epitome of many girls' dreams – who hasn't wished at some point they too could dance? – it's hard not to be disappointed on meeting her in the flesh. There's something about a ballerina, even a retired one, which screams pink net and satin ribbons even at 11 o'clock in the morning. But clad all in black, she looks more like a dance critic than a dancer. Then there's her sun-streaked hair loosely swept back in a clip, and her softly tanned skin: hardly classic prima ballerina imagery.

Bussell knows she often fails to live up to people's expectations. "There's something about classical ballet that's about the whole image, not just the productions you do. It's the whole image of a ballerina that seems very special and different, I suppose. I can tell people are always disappointed when they see me and go, 'Oh – you haven't got your ballet shoes with you'. And no they are not in my bag any more," she laughs again. At book signings (since retiring she has also added a celebrity author string to her bow with some children's story books, The Magic Ballerina) she says that kids' faces just drop "when they come up to me and look at the picture [on my book] and then at me and my feet". (Today she's in boots – high-heeled ones to make the most of being able to break yet another ballet dancing taboo now she's retired.)

With her new taste for Latin American dance, Bussell is certainly getting plenty of heel time. Salsa dancers wear them high, something she admits she still finds strange given that as a prima ballerina she was always used to her extra height coming from her toes rather than her heels.

If all this talk of dancing makes Bussell sound as if she might be hatching plans for a comeback, then she is quick to dash any hopes. "My lovely Italian partner, Roberto Bolle, always rings me up and says, 'Hm, are you thinking, possibly, of making an appearance?' No, sorry. You can't do classical ballet part time. I can't suddenly take two years off and think I can get up and be a ballerina again. So it's a no."

Her six-year-old daughter, on the other hand, is another story. "She already goes have the ability to be a dancer ... but I'm definitely not going to push her." For now, there is always that dancewear. And Strictly.

Curriculum Vitae

1969 Born in London to Andrea Williams and John Crittle. Her parents divorce three years later and her mother marries a dentist, Philip Bussell, whose name Darcey takes.

1982 Wins one of eight places at the Royal Ballet School after taking up ballet to help with her knock knees.

1986 Wins the Prix de Lausanne, and uses prize money for lessons with Rudolf Nureyev at the Monte Carlo Ballet.

1987 Starts her career at the Royal Ballet's then touring arm, Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet.

1989 Shoots to instant fame by becoming the Royal Ballet's youngest ever principal dancer in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's new ballet, Prince of the Pagodas.

1995 Made an OBE.

1997 Marries an Australian banker, Angus Forbes.

1998 Stars in the BBC1 comedy The Vicar of Dibley as herself.

2001 Birth of her first daughter, Phoebe Olivia.

2004 Has her second daughter, Zoë Sophia, and starts dancing again seven weeks after the birth.

2006 Made a CBE.

2007 Final Royal Ballet performance in MacMillan's Song of the Earth.

2008 Emigrates to Sydney, Australia; joins the ranks of celebrity authors with a children's series, The Magic Ballerina.

2009 Given an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. Joins Strictly Come Dancing as a judge and is also made the godmother of the P&O Cruises ship MS Azura.