The life and times of Surrey ballerina Margot Fonteyn

PUBLISHED: 14:06 10 June 2019

Margot Fonteyn, publicity photo from the 1960s, when she was in her 40s (Hurok Concerts, US / Petaluma Argus Courier, 25th June 1965).

Margot Fonteyn, publicity photo from the 1960s, when she was in her 40s (Hurok Concerts, US / Petaluma Argus Courier, 25th June 1965).


Reigate born Margot Fonteyn was England’s first homegrown ballerina. Stephen Roberts charts the life and times of Surrey’s prima ballerina

As someone who can't dance to save his life, I naturally have the utmost admiration for those who can. I quite like watching 'Strictly', as it's humbling to see bods do stuff that's way beyond one's own limited capabilities.

The supremely talented Margot Fonteyn, was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham, in Reigate, 100 years ago on May 18 1919. I always reckon someone 'made it' if they appear in my trusty biographical dictionary, and there's our Margot, whose stage name was 'Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias', on page 479. She would become a 'prima ballerina assoluta' (literally 'absolute first ballerina'), a title reserved only for the very best, and only granted to three ballerinas in the 20th century. She was sufficiently famous to sit for no fewer than 47 portraits.

Margaret was born to an English father, Felix John Hookham, and a half-Irish, half-Brazilian mother, Hilda (née Acheson Fontes). One is tempted to say that a dance like the Tango would have been in her South American blood. Her Dad was a mechanical engineer, employed by British American Tobacco (BAT), while Hilda was the illegitimate daughter of a Brazilian industrialist and Irish mother. Margaret had one sibling, an elder brother, Felix, named after their father.

Margaret's time in Surrey would be short-lived, as the family moved to Ealing, where the four-year-old was enrolled for ballet classes with Grace Bosustow, alongside her brother. It seems that Margaret's mum was a constant presence at her lessons, picking up the nickname 'Black Queen' from the ballet teachers. It sounds like she was a 'Tiger Mum' of the time, with ambitious plans for her only daughter. The pressure may have got to Margaret, however, as she was often unwell before dance exams.

Felix Senior's work took the family abroad, to the USA and then to China (1928). The children were separated at this point, as Felix Junior was plonked in an English boarding school, while Margaret (or 'Peggy' as she was also known) accompanied her parents. This forced separation from her brother caused the young Margaret much unhappiness, but powerless to do anything about it, she found herself in China, aged nine.

After the family arrived in Shanghai (with Margaret now aged around 12), the youngster received ballet lessons from the Russian émigré George Goncharov. Margaret, however, was a reluctant pupil by all accounts and had no pretensions towards becoming a dancer, although she'd always liked jigging about and creating her own dances. She was competitive though, which would hold her in good stead. I find all this rather heart-warming. When Margaret was 14 her mother brought her back to England to pursue a dance career and, as the saying goes, the die was cast. The rest would be mere history, or more accurately, lifts, pirouettes and arabesques.

Having studied under Serafina Astafieva and others, Margot was 'spotted' by dancer, teacher and choreographer Dame Ninette de Valois and consequently joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) in 1934, when she would have been around 15, having made her first solo appearance in The Haunted Ballroom. Margaret was now being schooled by Olga Preobrajenska and Vera Volkova and as her career began to take off, mother and daughter decided on the more English-sounding 'Fonteyn', rather than Fontes as her nom-de-plume. Come 1935 she was known as Margot Fonteyn.

In the same year, Alicia Markova left the company, which led to Margot taking over many of her former roles and forming a partnership with the Australian dancer Robert Helpmann in the classical ballets. Margot had joined the company at a time when it needed to groom a new leading lady. Of all her coaches, the most influential was probably the Russian prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina. When faced with a new step, or routine, Fonteyn's first reaction was often, "I shall never be able to do it". She did though, every time.

In 1939, Fonteyn danced Aurora in a Sleeping Beauty revival, still considered the finest interpretation of that era. She would go on to dance most of the classical roles from Giselle onwards and would become an iconic figure who, with de Valois and British ballet dancer and choreographer Frederick Ashton, would help to shape the Royal Ballet. Fonteyn became famous for her portrayals of the classics and also for being a muse for Ashton, who wrote several ballets especially for her.

During the Second World War, the company maintained a hectic schedule: Fonteyn would be performing for the troops. In 1949, Fonteyn toured America with the Royal Ballet, and, five years later, in 1954, she became president of the Royal Academy of Dancing.

Margot had been unlucky in love, as her first love, the composer/conductor and Sadler's Wells musical director, Constant Lambert, had abandoned her, but she married Roberto Emilio Arias (hence that exotic stage name), who had been the Panamanian Ambassador to Great Britain, in 1955. The following year Margot was created D.B.E. thereby becoming Dame Margot Fonteyn. Margot partnered the Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93) towards the end of her career, a dance-match that brought both of them fame, and this, despite a 19-year age difference (Margot was 42, while Nureyev was 23). Nureyev was a dancer with the Royal Ballet between 1961, following his defection from the Soviet Union, until 1970. Margot first performed with him in 1962 in Giselle, the first step in what would become one of ballet's most famous partnerships, which once (reputedly) prompted a 40-minute ovation and 43 curtain calls for the pair. Margot also toured extensively.

In 1964, Margot's husband was shot multiple times by political opponents in Panama, rendering him paralysed. Margot would now become his carer and would continue dancing beyond her planned retirement to raise the money she needed to look after him. From the late 1970s, as Margot's dancing began to be curtailed, she took up both TV presenting and writing, including an autobiography (1975) and other books on dance.

In 1980, Margot unveiled a statue of herself in classical ballet pose, in her home town of Reigate. It can be found outside Walton House, in London Road, between the town centre and railway station. Created by British sculptor Nathan David, FRBS, it captures the joyful verve of the lady; the love of dance. She was noted for her perfect lines, characterisation and lyricism (musicality); it's all there, captured in a sculpture.

We can still see the flowing Margot too for several of her ballets were filmed, including Swan Lake (1937 and '66), Romeo and Juliet (also 1966), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). 'Flowing' is apt, for Fonte means 'fountain' in Portuguese. She did indeed erupt and flow like the outpourings of a water feature.

Margot died on February 21 1991, aged 71, her resting place a garden cemetery in Panama City, overlooking the Panama Canal. Fonteyn's life had been written by Elizabeth Frank in 1958. She was further commemorated in June 2016, when an English Heritage blue plaque was erected at 118 Long Acre, Covent Garden, where she lived in a flat, conveniently close to her old stomping ground of the Royal Opera House.

In awe of a Surrey lass who blossomed from reluctant pupil to prima ballerina assoluta, I perhaps owe it to her to give my two left feet one last go.


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