My best teacher

15th August 2003 at 01:00
All through my early school years, I was teased by pupils and teachers alike. I was teased because of my name - one teacher used to call me Arthur Sleep because I was always half-asleep in class - I was teased because I had a Devon accent, because I was a dancer, and because of my height. I was very much an outsider.

My reports were average. I was in the C stream at West Hartlepool technical school, where I remember making a model theatre in the woodwork class. It fell apart because I'd stuck it together with chewing gum.

The first teacher I really liked was the headmistress of the Royal Ballet junior school, which I joined at 13, Lady Agnew. She was great. She taught us Greek mythology and geography. My geography wasn't so good, but I loved Greek mythology because it involved acting.

Lady Agnew was very grand, very eccentric; an elegant, statuesque woman with auburn hair that she wore in a plait wrapped around her head. She was always immaculately turned out in tailored, tweedy costumes. Her first name was unusual - she was called Swansea - and she'd taught in Africa for a while. She liked me.

Lady Agnew took us on outings to the Royal Ballet. She would watch me throw myself round the salon afterwards trying to do the steps I'd just seen the professionals doing on stage. Other teachers thought I was showing off, but she encouraged me to extend my range. When I reached the sixth form, Lady Agnew would take us to art exhibitions on a Friday morning. We saw the first pop art exhibition in London and the first Goya exhibition.

Graham Bowles was the English literature teacher at the school and I loved him because I loved the subject. He had only one arm, but I never found out why. Every week, Mr Bowles got us to recite a poem and I excelled at that.

I loved verse and he encouraged me. He knew all about the personal lives of the writers we studied, as well as their works, which made lessons much more interesting. I got three O-levels and one of them was in English literature. I also passed history and art.

Molly Zambra, the art teacher, inspired us all. She had time for every person in the class. Some of the other kids were brilliant at art and I felt inferior because my work was just OK, but she gave me confidence and nurtured my talent and brought me up to the standard to pass the exam.

Mrs Zambra was as wide as she was tall. She waddled as she walked and breathed heavily because of her weight. I was fond of her and gave her a stool I'd made in woodwork as a present. I kept in touch with all three teachers after I left.

But my most formidable teacher, and my mentor, was Dame Ninette de Valois, who had just retired from directing the Royal Ballet and become director of the upper school when I was there. She and I bonded right away. She invited me round for lunch and we talked a lot.

When it became obvious that I wasn't going to reach the required height for a dancer, I became very depressed. I stopped growing at 5ft 2 in at the age of 17 and was going to take a pill that would make me taller. Dame Nina wouldn't hear of it. She thought I was destined to be a dancer and assured me I had a future. She said: "You're just going to have to jump twice as high and spin twice as fast as anybody else."

In 1981, not long before she died, at the age of 101, she was a studio guest when I was on the television show This is Your Life, and described me as "the greatest virtuoso dancer the Royal Ballet has ever produced". I was so proud.

Dancer Wayne Sleep was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1948 Born in Plymouth

1952-54 Lara junior school, Plymouth

1945-55 Hyde Park junior school, West Hartlepool

1955-58 Baltic Street junior school, West Hartlepool

1958-61 West Hartlepool technical school

1961-66 Royal Ballet school, London

1966 Joins Royal Ballet

1973 Becomes principal dancer at Royal Ballet

1980 Forms own dance company, Dash

1981 Stars in Cats

1998 Awarded OBE; launches Wayne Sleep Dance Scholarship

April 2003 Appears in I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here television series

July 24, 2003 Opens in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium

December 2003 Returns to Royal Ballet in Cinderella

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