Whatever it was that the Strictly Come Dancing team wanted to ask Darcey Bussell, she had already made up her mind that the answer would be no, writes Programme Information's Tony Matthews.
"I was in London last May doing some work with publishers Harper Collins," says Darcey. "I'd just finished an interview with BBC Breakfast and, as I'd performed on Strictly about two years ago, I assumed they might want another little number. I was all ready to explain that I haven't danced since I retired and didn't intend to do any more, when they asked if I would be interested in being a judge. I was taken aback, it wasn't what I was expecting, but it will be an amazing experience."
Darcey, the Royal Ballet's youngest ever principal ballerina, officially retired from dancing in June 2007 following a final, emotional performance of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Song Of The Earth. Since then she has largely concentrated on raising her family in Sydney, but she will return to London at the beginning of December, in time to join Strictly Come Dancing at the semi-final stage. "It was a problem that my home is in Australia," she says, "but being a big fan of Strictly I just felt that it was a great opportunity to be involved with a very exciting and positive show."
Joining regular judges Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli, Alesha Dixon and Craig Revel Horwood, Darcey will have a critical say in the outcome of one of the closest contests in the show's history. "I hope they're nice to me," she laughs. "I met them when I performed on the show and I've seen some of Craig's choreography and really admired his work. I suppose I'm probably most like Len, I want to give constructive criticism and help them along, but I'm quite prepared to say if they haven't improved. All the judges have different qualities and, having been a dancer all my life, I know what it's like to perform and what you need to be able to perform."
To get a feel for how the series works, Darcey attended filming during the early weeks. "Since then I've followed it every week on the DVDs they send me. From the beginning, I've had my own list of people that I thought were going to survive and I've enjoyed seeing how they've done. Luckily I haven't been too far wrong, although the public obviously has a big say – there's a lot of sympathy voting, but that's showbiz."
Strictly's format is now seen all over the world – in Australia it is known as Dancing With The Stars – but while it is popular there, Darcey says it's not on the same scale as in the UK. "I've watched the show a lot in the last five years but, even so, I was slightly shocked to discover how popular it is," she says. "It's exciting because it motivates people. We're watching celebrities who have never danced before enjoying the experience of trying something that is great fun."
Good old fashioned family entertainment it may be, but passions often run high and the media focus on Strictly Come Dancing can be intense – is Darcey aware of what she may be letting herself in for? "I've heard some of it but, being in Australia, I'm not totally up on the gossip," she says. "I have done a bit of live television before and it's not easy at all. I suppose my career has been quite sheltered in its way, but I've been around long enough and I've been in front of some very big audiences. I don't want to upset anybody, I'm not that sort of person, but I suppose you're not always ready for how somebody's going to take something you say, and you're not always prepared for what the public is going to think. I think if you stay true to your word and don't pretend to be something you're not then you'll be okay."
Would Darcey have preferred to be one of the dancers rather than a judge? "Oh yes, it looks a lot more fun. I love learning different styles of dance and would much prefer to be the dancer. But it wouldn't really be right – the whole idea is that the contestants have never experienced dance."
How has Darcey's life changed since retirement? Does she miss the work and focus required? "I had kids while I was still a dancer, but being a full-time mother was something I always wanted to do. I have something else to focus on now – although maybe my kids don't want me to focus on them quite as much as I do. I miss being a dancer, which has been a big part of who I am, but when you lose that identity it's a case of trying to find another one. I've been going through a massive transition over the last two years, while doing lots of other things that have kept me very busy."
Both Darcey's daughters dance and, although they are still very young, she's not sure about encouraging them to follow in her footsteps: "I don't know, it's a tough world. Like being an athlete, it's a short career and to put that much dedication in while knowing that it's going to finish so early is one of the hardest things to come to terms with. You don't realise that as a child, or as a passionate teenager falling in love with that career; looking at it now I think 'oh no, try something else', but you can't stop them. I do think every child should dance and that everyone should experience music and movement as a way of expressing themselves and gaining confidence. That's why I think the celebrities in Strictly enjoy it."
As a judge, what will Darcey be looking for? "When a dancer is in control of the floor with every step, we say they are 'eating up the stage'. I want to see them travelling, using the space and stretching themselves that little bit further than maybe they should; that's exciting to watch. I hate anything safe and comfortable with no spark to it."
She adds that the celebrity and professional dancers also need a certain indefinable something as a couple. "They can't be just individuals, there must be some chemistry. I also want to know that the celebrity has really listened to the professional and understood what is required choreographically and that the professional has understood how much their celebrity can cope with."
It's far from easy, she admits, and nerves will play a big part in the outcome. "Actually, it's wonderful to sit and watch instead of always being the dancer," she reflects. "I will enjoy coming in at the end because they are going to be much more comfortable with performing. It still comes down to that crunch, but the standard is so high that it's going to be a really tough final. There's a wonderful mix of good girls and good guys, it will be interesting to see who the public is going to choose."
How does ballroom dancing differ from the ballet discipline to which Darcey is accustomed? "I don't think they do differ," she says. "I went recently to do a bit of ballroom dancing as I hadn't done anything like it before and I wanted to get a feel for it. If anything, the lines are very similar to classical dance. It's a serious technique; from samba to ballroom to American smooth it's all very specific. It's just as fussy as classical ballet. To be that clean and precise, you have to have worked on it for eight to 10 years to be a professional. The only difference is that in ballet we don't compete ... we're judged in a slightly different way."
Whatever kind of dancing appeals to people, Darcey believes Strictly Come Dancing has had a positive effect. "It's brilliant," she says. "It has got people who perhaps didn't believe they had an interest in dance to go out and try it. They can appreciate that everybody can improve and when people see others having fun they want to get up and join in."
Darcey has her own experiences of having fun with the medium and taking dance into different areas of popular television with her fondly remembered appearances alongside Dawn French in The Vicar Of Dibley and French And Saunders, would she consider further work along those lines? "I wouldn't say it was totally in my comfort zone," she says. "The things I did were all about my dance. I wasn't not doing what I did, if you know what I mean. It's another world and I don't know if I would want to be part of that again. I was very fortunate with my own career, which was very good and long, so to step into another serious career I don't know if it's in me."
Is there any chance that audiences might one day see Darcey Bussell dance again? "Everybody makes a comeback," she laughs, "but you can't in classical ballet. It's either full-time or not at all... I miss ballet, but I feel comfortable with my decision."