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For 40 Years Prima Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn Created a Soaring Legend of Grace and Beauty

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One morning many years ago in the London suburb of Ealing, a shy 4-year-old named Peggy Hookham left her house with her mother, expecting to hop and skip to the shops. Instead. Peggy’s mother surprised her by leading the little girl to Miss Grace Bosustow’s dance school. Mum, as it happened, wanted Peggy to learn to tap-dance.

From these first tentative footsteps sprang the soaring legend of Dame Margot Fonteyn, the prima ballerina of Britain’s Royal Ballet and for four decades a universal symbol of the beauty of dance. She danced as a snowflake in The Nutcracker at age 14; she danced as Princess Aurora in Vie Sleeping Beauty, her most luminous role; she danced such classics as Giselle and Swan Lake; and when she danced with Rudolf Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet at London’s Covent Garden in 1965, the pair stood onstage for 40 minutes to answer 43 curtain calls. She radiated not only elegance and intensity but also a sublime durability that made it seem as if she would dance forever.

Alas, she could not. After a 2½-year bout with cancer, Fonteyn died at 71. She left behind a trail of lyrical performances and lavish tributes and memories of the flowers heaped upon countless stages by delirious fans. British poet Sacheverell Sitwell once called her “a bird of beautiful plumage taking pleasure and exulting in its wings.” Said Jane Hermann, codirector of the American Ballet Theatre: “She was part and parcel of the creation of some of the great masterpieces of our time.”

Off the stage, on which she twirled and wept, Fonteyn was a sensible woman of solidly middle-class British pieties. Her father was an English engineer; her mother, the former Hilda Fontes (which Mar-got anglicized to Fonteyn), was half-Irish and half-Brazilian. Margot’s early teacher, Royal Ballet founder Ninette de Valois, quickly put an end to any notions of tap-dancing, and her pupil was soon apprenticed at London’s Vic-Wells Ballet.

The harsh discipline of the dance was lightened by performances at Cambridge University. There she met a young student named Roberto (Tito) Arias, son of the former President of Panama. Their romance was sundered by World War II, and she scarcely saw Tito again until 1953. By then she was an international star—and Tito was a committed left-wing political figure and the married father of three. After seeing Fonteyn onstage in New York City, however, Tito appeared at Fonteyn’s hotel room one morning and announced, “You’re going to marry me and be very happy.”

Eventually she did, and they were. They sailed the Mediterranean with Aristotle Onassis and hobnobbed with Winston Churchill. Back home in Panama, however, Tito was persona non grata. At one point Fonteyn was arrested and briefly detained in a Panamanian prison by an official who had been present at her wedding in Paris. She was deported to Miami, and Tito escaped to Brazil. Five years later Tito was shot by a would-be assassin in Panama City.

He survived, but the bullet left him paralyzed and all but speechless. Tirelessly. Fonteyn nursed Tito back to health, even as she continued to dance around the globe. In the Soviet Union in 1961, she heard whispers that a brilliant young dancer had defected to the West. Back in London, her former teacher proposed that Margot dance Giselle with the celebrated defector—Rudolf Nureyev. She was by then 42, nearly two decades Nureyev’s senior, and considering retirement. As she later put it, “I thought, it would be like mutton dancing with lamb.’ ”

Fonteyn took up with the lamb nonetheless, and for 15 years she and Nureyev electrified audiences in capitals around the world. She continued to divide her time between tours and her home in Panama, where Tito conducted business from a wheelchair. Already named Dame of the Order of the British Empire, she miraculously defied gravity until age 60. Ultimately, at a gala celebration at London’s Royal Opera House, she danced a farewell performance. Then she gracefully retired to Panama with her husband and thereafter made only rare guest appearances. Tito died in 1989; the cost of his care had left Margot in such straitened circumstances that the Royal Ballet mounted a special benefit for her last year.

She will be remembered as one of this century’s prima ballerinas, an artist who wed understated passion with purity of form to place an indelible British stamp on the world of dance. She will be remembered by friends, artists and fans. Perhaps most of all, she will be remembered by four generations of little girls who strained, in sequined tutus and satin slippers, hoping someday to dance The Sleeping Beauty in the blithe footsteps of Dame Margot Fonteyn.