Darcey Bussell: You Ask The Questions

What's more painful, ballet or childbirth? What happened when you met President Clinton? And when do you intend to retire?

Darcey Bussell, 35, was born in London. She entered the Royal Ballet School at the comparatively late age of 13 and in 1987 joined Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. Her potential was recognised by the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan and she made history as the Royal Ballet's youngest-ever principal, playing the part of Rose in The Prince of the Pagodas when she was only 19. In 1995, she was awarded an OBE. She lives in London with her husband and two daughters.

What makes a prima ballerina? Is it nature, nurture or endurance?
Yvonne Carter, Manchester

Endurance, because you need the discipline to keep going. You train every day and it's very repetitious - drilling the same moves over and over again. It's not something anybody else can push you to do, it has got to come from within. The shape of your body is not half as important as your love of ballet. Anyone could do wonders if they really wanted it hard enough.

Did you have any interesting nicknames as a child?
Debbie Craig, Dundee

I was called the "Duracell battery" at the Royal Ballet School, because I had so much energy; they thought I'd never stop.

How did it feel to be the Royal Ballet's youngest principal dancer?
Lily Davis, Leeds

I was amazed when it happened, totally flabbergasted. I knew I had it in me to be a principal, but I just didn't think it would happen that early. It was really tough, but luckily I didn't have time to think too much about it. I had just joined the company so, for every production, I was learning all the moves for the first time, whereas everyone else had done them before. So I appreciated it at the time, but it all went very fast.

Have you ever experienced a "wardrobe malfunction" on stage?
Elaine Smith, by e-mail

Once, during a performance of Sleeping Beauty, my head-dress came off and nearly decapitated my partner, who was behind me. We were doing the finale, which involved a lot of turns, and all the pins came out. The head-dress was still attached, but it was swinging about violently. My partner tried to rip it off at one point, but it wouldn't budge. We just had to carry on. Eventually, I was able to go off for two seconds and they jammed it back on, which was agony.

Did you consider the film Billy Elliot inspiring or insipid?
Gary Vickers, Hay-on-Wye

Inspiring. My mum didn't want me to dance. When I was 13, I found out that it was my last chance to audition for the Royal Ballet School and I pleaded with her. She knew how tough ballet was, and that going to the school would probably shatter my dreams. Of course, she was right; it was very different from how I imagined it, but I was addicted to the discipline. I loved that side of it. My mother, understandably, wasn't sure that I would.

When I watch you dance, I feel unalloyed pleasure. How do you feel when you're dancing?
Peter Graveney, Portsmouth

I'm normally criticising everything I do. In my mind, I'm ahead of what my body is doing. I'm thinking about what I need to correct. And I have always had nerves; if you didn't, you wouldn't have any excitement on stage. There are only some ballets when I can get totally involved; ballets that are less technical, such as Romeo and Juliet. In those, I can get totally wrapped up in the steps and the emotion of it. But I'm less self-critical now. I know I don't have that many years left, and enjoy it a lot more when I perform.

What song was played for the first dance at your wedding?
Julia Norman, by e-mail

"Dancing Queen" by Abba. I wouldn't say my husband is a natural dancer, but he's very good at ceroc.

You've met many famous people after shows. Who was the most exciting?
Beth Rogers, Basildon

Well, I was taken aback by Bill Clinton. When he was President, we had our premiere of Sleeping Beauty in Washington. He came to the first night, and he had that aura about him. He came on stage after the performance and spoke to the dancer playing the lilac fairy. She is the good fairy, the one who ensures the happy ending. He said: "I really need a lilac fairy in the White House."

English National Ballet did an underwear shoot for the lads' mag Loaded. Would you ever do something similar in the name of publicity?
Verity Pritchard, London

I've done it. I did Esquire in a leather catsuit, draped over cars. It was fun doing something that was so out of the ordinary, but I only agreed to it because it was shot at Brands Hatch and they let me drive the cars. I wear very little on stage in some ballets, so to be photographed like that didn't seem such a crime.

Which is more painful, ballet or childbirth?
Catherine Paul, London

I had Caesareans when I gave birth to each of my children. I haven't done the real thing, but I imagine it's very different from the pain of ballet - that's like having the flu, you ache all over. I do know that bringing up children is more exhausting than ballet.

What's the closest you have come to giving up ballet?
Oona Barker, by e-mail

Of course, when I first fell pregnant, I knew I might not be able to come back. But I don't think I ever really believed it. Saying that, usually by the end of the season, everybody feels they've had enough. Your body hurts, you're gritting your teeth to get through every performance. You can't imagine feeling fresh again.

When do you intend to retire?
Sheila Clapp, by e-mail

I always said I would retire at 35, but I am 35 now and I'm still going. I never realised that I would have any sort of life in the ballet after having kids, but at the moment I do. I still want to retire early, so there's probably only two or three years left. I want to go out while I'm still at my peak, but the performing is so addictive.

Would you encourage your daughters to follow in your footsteps?
Helen Jennings, Carlisle

Probably not. I would love them to experience dance as kids, but I wouldn't want them to be professional dancers. You don't get paid well enough for the amount of work you put into it. I've been lucky, but that doesn't happen to everyone. I'm going to throw so many other things at them that hopefully one of those will take their fancy. The oldest is three-and-a-half, and she is totally besotted with ballet at the moment. Of course, if one of them came to me at 13 and begged me to let them join the Royal Ballet, I'd have to let them.

'Pilates for Life' by Darcey Bussell is published by Penguin (£14.99)

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