From ballet to ballroom, Darcey Bussell is still strictly stylish

Feted as one of the greatest ballerinas of all time, Strictly Come Dancing judge Darcey Bussell was in Norwich recently. She speaks to EMMA LEE.

'People think you plan it, but you would never plan it like that. You never imagine that it's all going to happen in one year,' laughs Darcey Bussell. By all accounts it's been a whirlwind 12 months for the former ballerina. As if performing at the Olympic Closing Ceremony after being retired for four years, bringing out a book and becoming the president of the Royal Academy of Dance wasn't enough to keep her busy, she's also joined the judging panel of one of the most popular shows on TV, Strictly Come Dancing.

'Dancing is a small niche world and I'd come over from Australia, where we'd been living, thinking that I was just going to do the Olympics and launch my book,' Darcey says. The visit turned out to be rather longer than expected.

'As a family we're having a great time back in London,' she goes on. 'We've been back here five months and it's been my home all my life. And my husband worked in the city here for 20 years.'

Darcey was talking ahead of her visit to Norwich. Organised by Jarrold, she was at Open in Bank Plain to speak about her latest book, Darcey Bussell: A Life in Pictures, and her career.

There's certainly lots to talk about. Feted as one of the greatest ballerinas of all time, Darcey was accepted into the Royal Ballet Lower School in London at the age of 13 and graduated from the Royal Ballet Upper School in 1987. Two years later, aged 19, she became the youngest ever British ballerina to be given the honour of principal dancer. When she gave her final performance, in 2007, it was broadcast to more than 3.3 million viewers.

The book celebrates her stellar career, accompanied by images by acclaimed photographers including Mario Testino, Lord Snowdon, Mary McCartney and Bryan Adams, from the early years to her final performance of MacMillan's Song of the Earth, including performances in Swan Lake, Cinderella, Giselle, Manon, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. Many little girls want to become a ballerina when they grow up, but few make it. Off stage it can be much less glamorous – the discipline, the hours of gruelling training and the toll it takes on the body. When Darcey was working on the book she was keen to make it as honest as possible.

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'It took me about two years. It's something I wanted to do ever since I retired, especially because I have two daughters and wanted them to know that their mother was a ballerina and that was my job,' she says.

'It's a short career, like an athlete, and I wanted to show the ins and outs of my career, not just the pretty pictures. It's very much a visual art and I wanted to show the rehearsals, and backstage and the creating of a work, not just performance pictures.

'It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster,' she says candidly. 'It was hard going through the story and finding pictures that remind you of parts of your life that weren't all plain sailing – the downers like injuries. I didn't appreciate there were going to be tears.'

Darcey made her return to the stage this summer in the most spectacular fashion at the Olympic Closing Ceremony. As she explains, months of hard training went in to preparing for it.

'The producer, Kim Gavin, wanted me back en pointe, and I hadn't been en pointe for four years. It took me six months to get back in shape,' she says.

The closing ceremony was watched by millions around the world – did the nerves kick in?

'I think as a performer you never really comprehend that,' she says. 'You focus on the job you are there to do. If you did it would be so overwhelming you wouldn't know where to start and the nerves would take over.

'The atmosphere was extraordinary and you were carried along, knowing that you had one chance to get it right.'

And then, of course there's Strictly, and Darcey has settled in well alongside Len Goodman, Craig Revel-Horwood and Bruno Tonioli on the panel. The viewers seem to agree too – the BBC show has gone from strength to strength this series and has repeatedly thrashed its Saturday night rival X Factor in the ratings.

Speaking to her, Darcey's clearly in her element, even if early on in the series she did get a bit of stick for her tendency to say 'yah'.

'I'd never done live television before,' she says. 'I'd been a guest judge, so I'd had a taster, like having a little sweet. It's very different but I'm really enjoying it. The other three judges are amazing. There's lots I still need to know, and they're being very, very helpful and look after me. It's such an uplifting show and it appeals to such a wide age group. I love dance and so I enjoy watching the professional dancers doing their full routines.'

If anyone can empathise with the physical and mental toll all that training is having on the contestants, it's Darcey.

'The celebrities are going on this journey and are learning so much in such a little amount of time. They all ache,' she says.

'I think the standard is very high. And it's very difficult because we want that group of people to stay all the way through. They've all made extraordinary efforts and have improved. I think [cricketer] Michael Vaughan was very gracious when he left. He was one of the guys that made a massive transformation, although his Latin was a little bit scary!'

Reflecting on her favourite dances of the series Darcey is full of praise for eventually winner, Olympic gymnast Louis Smith.

'The Halloween special when Louis was a zombie was particularly good. I think when he gets to play a character he comes out of his shell. His Dirty Dancing routine with the presage [lift] – we do that in a ballet called Giselle - was very impressive. And to pull that off so early on – in a way he should have saved some of that. He's a strong guy so he was able to make it work. I love [his dance partner] Flavia too.

'And Lisa Riley's cha-cha-cha. That enthusiasm kept her sailing through this show. She's did brilliantly,' she says.

? Darcey Bussell: A Life in Pictures is published by Hardie Grant, priced �30.