Dame Beryl Grey

The great British ballerina, RAD Vice President – and Dance Gazette agony aunt.

Dance Gazette | Big Picture | Issue 6 - Feb 2023

Dame Beryl Grey, RAD Vice President and former ballerina, died on 10 December at the age of 95.

Beryl Grey joined Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) in 1941 aged just 14. In 1957 she made history as the first British ballerina to guest with the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets, and in 1964 danced with the Peking Ballet. Later artistic director of London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), her numerous honours included the RAD’s Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award in 1995.

For several years, Dame Beryl was also the Dance Gazette agony aunt, alongside David McAllister in a popular column called David and the Dame. She drew on her own matchless experience for advice that was notable for its compassion but also no-nonsense candour. Here are some highlights.

Beryl Grey in 1956. Photo: GBL Wilson/RAD/ArenaPAL

My bored and badly-behaved pupils ruin the class for everyone.

If these children don’t want to learn and aren’t interested, then I don’t think they should continue. They shouldn’t be in a ballet class. It’s sacrilege. It should be like going into church – there should be respect, awe and discipline. When I was a little girl no one even considered disrupting a class. I think it’s been cheapened too much.

The teacher leading my school is strict and old-fashioned. Should she update her methods?

The young should be prepared to learn from older people. Youth is impatient, but I wouldn’t presume to tell an older person how to teach. As for her being strict – well, that’s no bad thing! Ballet is such a hard discipline, and it also requires tremendous self-discipline. Fashions may change, but fundamentally, teaching is a gift.

Beryl Grey with her husband Sven Svenson in 1966. Photo: GBL Wilson/RAD/ArenaPAL

My daughter wants to take ballet classes – but will the work and criticism upset her?

When I was a child, I worked extremely hard – I went to very few parties! I didn’t have a fun life, but I wanted to do it more than anything. Quite frankly, a child has to learn how to take criticism. I’m from the old school, where you learned you have to take the rough with the smooth. 

I have started a relationship with a dancer in my company. Do love and work mix?

Loving relationships are very important to dancers. You bare your soul on stage, so you must have someone behind you. Dancers are highly emotionally charged – for them, it is all or nothing at all. Personally, I always kept my friendships outside the company – which was partly curiosity about the world outside, and about other art forms. 

My pupil longs for a professional career, but I am sure she will never be good enough. 

You cannot possibly tell at 14 whether someone is going to make it. I was only 14 when I joined the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, but my partner, David Paltenghi, didn’t start dancing at all until he was 19. Your doubts may act as a wonderful incentive – the girl may work even harder because it’s a challenge.

My promising student is held back by her father, who says ballet is a waste of time.

Families can be funny, and very unreasonable. This father must be handled very carefully – take a softly, softly approach. If you make him angry, he might even take it out on the girl. Men do still think of dance as an insecure profession – I suspect that at the back of their minds they imagine a dancer will only get on if she sleeps with someone.

‘Respect, awe and discipline’: Beryl Grey in 1964. Photo: GBL Wilson/RAD/ArenaPAL
Beryl Grey with Gerald Ohn in 1964. Photo: GBL Wilson/RAD/ArenaPAL

I teach my daughter – but now she wants another teacher. 

It is always difficult to let go of a talented pupil – especially if she is your own daughter – but it is vital. She wants to explore and learn; she is growing up and becoming her own person. Nurturing can become smothering: I’m keen that there is a break, and not too late. 

My students complain I’m picking on them when I correct them!

Dancers have to learn to take corrections. It can be very upsetting, but you can never see yourself as others do and without corrections you can slip into bad habits very easily. The teacher has to be completely honest. Being an artist isn’t a comfortable career – and it’s quite a lonely one, although wonderfully fulfilling. On stage, you’re all alone – you are baring your soul – so gather up all the advice and correction you can.

My teachers say I am talented – can I have a ballet career and a life?

If you have any doubts, you must give up a career in dance. To be a principal dancer is a wonderful privilege. I became a principal when I was 14, but I never thought that one gave up anything. If you want to get to the top, you don’t do everything that other people do. If you’re going to become, in a way, unique, there is a price to pay. Partying is a very empty life – it doesn’t lead anywhere at all, but everything you put into your training you get back a thousandfold.


Beryl Grey dancing Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theatre


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