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Miss Kilgour and Miss Lions by Darcey Bussell

A teacher who taught her to overcome dyslexia, and one who backed her potential, helped to keep the Strictly Come Dancing judge on her toes

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A teacher who taught her to overcome dyslexia, and one who backed her potential, helped to keep the Strictly Come Dancing judge on her toes

I was 13 when I arrived at White Lodge, where dancers from the Royal Ballet School in London board and study.

At that stage, I was two years behind everybody else. Physically, I had the right attributes to be a dancer, but I had no technical ability, no strength and my balance wasn’t good.

I was always at the back of the class trying to catch up and going wrong all the time.

The day was split between ballet and academic work. Nancy Kilgour taught me classical ballet that first year and again when I was 16 and 17. She was tiny, in her fifties, and a former performer full of enthusiasm and energy. She was fabulously mad and very strict. She would run across the room and scream at you, then go quiet and scream at you again.

She convinced me that I was going to be good when, at the time, I was the worst in the class. If a teacher believes in you, everything becomes possible.

She told me to keep trying and not to give up. I was flexible, which was a good attribute and I had a very good jump for classical dance, but I found many of the moves difficult.

By the time I was 16, I’d got over my rough patch. When the school entered one pupil into the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland [an annual competition for dancers seeking to pursue a career in classical ballet], Miss Kilgour said I should go, even though the school’s director wasn’t keen. I went and won, and was given a scholarship to a school in Monte Carlo, where I met Rudolf Nureyev, which was wonderful.

If a teacher believes in you, everything becomes possible

Nancy Kilgour was one of those perfect people who gave me the confidence to push myself so that I followed my dream. I still keep in touch with her now, although she’s gone back to her home country of Canada.

Another teacher had a great impact on me when I was younger, before performing-arts school. When I was a small kid at Fox Primary in London, a lot of the teachers thought I was lazy until it was discovered that I was dyslexic. I was in the bottom classes and made excuses not to write. Really, I was running away from things.

When I was about nine years old, I started extra lessons with Miss Lions. She was brilliant; she had huge backcombed hair, the exact same colour as a lion. She had a beautiful round face that came alive whenever she was with you.

She made me feel that I could improve. As a kid, you don’t believe that something isn’t always going to be difficult. She showed me how to handle my dyslexia and what to focus on, so I had a spelling book with words that I could double check, and I would read aloud and gain confidence.

She said it wasn’t that I was lazy, but that I had to focus differently from other kids.

I worked with her for about two years and, many years later, I passed my English O level.

Whenever you have a weakness, it gives you a different strength and determination, and if I hadn’t had dyslexia, I might not have become a classical dancer. So, like Nancy Kilgour, Miss Lions has a lot to answer for.

Darcey Bussell was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. Her Diverse Dance Mix team helped schoolchildren mark the roll-out of the London Curriculum primary programme in front of mayor Sadiq Khan, along with funders Yelena Baturina, Be Open Foundation and the Mayor’s Fund for London. Register for free online at

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