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This article is about the British prima ballerina assoluta. For the medieval trouvère, see Dames Margot and Maroie.
Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias DBE
Margot Fonteyn in the 1960s
Born Margaret Evelyn Hookham
(1919-05-18)18 May 1919
Reigate, Surrey, England, United Kingdom
Died 21 February 1991(1991-02-21) (aged 71)
Panama City, Panama
Cause of death Cancer
Resting place Panama
Nationality British
Other names Peggy Hookham'
Occupation Ballerina
Employer Royal Ballet
Known for dancing /classical ballet.
Title Prima ballerina assoluta
Spouse(s) Roberto Arias

Dame Margot Fonteyn de Arias, DBE (18 May 1919 – 21 February 1991), was a British ballerina.[1] She is widely regarded as one of the greatest classical ballet dancers of all time. She spent her entire career as a dancer with The Royal Ballet, eventually being appointed Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the company by Queen Elizabeth II.

Early life

Fonteyn was born Margaret Evelyn Hookham and known as Peggy Hookham on 18 May 1919 in Reigate, Surrey, England to a British father and a half-Irish half-Brazilian mother; her mother's father was Brazilian industrialist Antonio Fontes. Very early in her career, Margaret transformed the Fontes into Fonteyn (a surname her brother also adopted) and Margaret into Margot: thus her stage name was established. Among her father's family were people in literature and music, but he was an engineer.[2]

When she was four, her mother signed her up for ballet classes with her older brother. At age eight, Margot made the long journey to China with her mother and father, who had taken employment with a tobacco company there; her brother Felix remained at his school. For six years Margot lived in Tientsin then Shanghai, where she studied ballet with Russian émigré teacher George Goncharov. Her mother brought her back to London when she was 14, in order to pursue a ballet career. Continuing to work in Shanghai, her father was interned during World War II by the invading Japanese.[3]

In 1933, she joined the Vic-Wells Ballet School, the predecessor of today's Royal Ballet School. She trained under the direction of Ninette de Valois and teachers including Olga Preobrajenska and Mathilde Kschessinska. After starting with the Vic-Wells Ballet, she rose quickly through the ranks of the company. By 1939, Fonteyn had performed principal roles in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty and was appointed Prima Ballerina.

Fonteyn was most noted in the ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton, including Ondine, Daphnis and Chloe, and Sylvia. She was especially renowned for her portrayal of Aurora in Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty. (Televised versions of Sleeping Beauty and Ashton's version of Cinderella are now available on DVD). Fonteyn also worked with choreographer Roland Petit and later in life, Martha Graham. In 1949 when the Royal Ballet toured the United States, Fonteyn instantly became a celebrity for her performances.

Nureyev and others

In the 1940s, she and Robert Helpmann formed a very successful dance partnership, and they toured together for several years. In the 1950s, she danced regularly with Michael Somes (they had first danced together in 1938, when they created Constant Lambert's Horoscope). In 1955, they danced together in the first ever colour telecast of a ballet, NBC's production of The Sleeping Beauty. In 1958 they appeared together in the first British televised version of The Nutcracker. She did him the favourite partner of her entire career.

Fonteyn began her greatest artistic partnership at a time when many (including the head of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois) thought she was about to retire. In 1961, Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West, and on 21 February 1962, he and Fonteyn first performed together in Giselle. She was 42 and he was 24. Their performance was a great success; during the curtain calls Nureyev dropped to his knees and kissed Fonteyn's hand. They created an on-and-offstage partnership that lasted until her retirement in 1979 at age 60, and were lifelong friends. Fonteyn and Nureyev became known for inspiring repeated frenzied curtain calls and bouquet tosses.

Ashton choreographed Marguerite and Armand for them, which no other couple danced until the 21st century. They debuted Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, although MacMillan had conceived the ballet for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable. Fonteyn and Nureyev appeared together in the filmed versions of MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and the Le Corsaire Pas de Deux.

Despite differences in background and temperament, and a 19-year gap in ages, Nureyev and Fonteyn became close lifelong friends and were famously loyal to each other. Fonteyn would not approve an unflattering photograph of Nureyev. He said about her:

"At the end of 'Lac des Cygnes' when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world."

Photojournalist Michael Peto took many images of Fonteyn and Nureyev, helping their artistry to become widely known and part of the national culture.

The extent of their physical relationship remains unclear; Nureyev said that they had one, while Fonteyn denied it. Her biographer Meredith Daneman agreed with Nureyev.[4] They remained close even after she retired to a Panama cattle farm with her husband. Fonteyn would talk with Nureyev by phone several times a week, although her farmhouse did not have a telephone. When she had to be treated for cancer, Nureyev paid many of her medical bills and visited her often, despite his busy schedule as a performer and choreographer. In a documentary about Fonteyn, Nureyev said that they danced with "one body, one soul" and that Margot was "all he had, only her." An observer said that "If most people are at level A, they were at level Z." (Nureyev had his own health problems as he was HIV positive. He died of AIDS in 1993).

In the extremely competitive world of ballet, Fonteyn was renowned for her consummate professionalism and loyalty to her friends. Her dancing stood out for its lyricism, grace, and passion. Although Fonteyn was the Royal Ballet's biggest star, its director, Dame Ninette de Valois, cultivated other talents, so that the Royal Ballet of Fonteyn's day also featured Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Lynn Seymour, and Antoinette Sibley.


During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Fonteyn had a long relationship with composer Constant Lambert. Lambert expressed some aspects of this in his ballet Horoscope (1938).

In 1955, Fonteyn married Dr Roberto Arias, a Panamanian diplomat to London. Their marriage was initially rocky because of his infidelities. She was arrested when Arias attempted a coup d'etat against the Panamanian government in 1959.[5] Information released on 28 May 2010 indicated Dame Margot knew of, and at one point was involved in, the coup attempt.[6] In 1964, a rival Panamanian politician shot Arias, leaving him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.

After her retirement, she spent all her time in Panama, and was close to her husband and his children from an earlier marriage. Shortly before her husband's death, in 1989, Fonteyn was diagnosed with a cancer that proved fatal.[5] She died on 21 February 1991 in a hospital in Panama City, Panama.[7]

Legacy and honours

  • Fonteyn was awarded a DBE (made a dame) in 1956 at the age of 37.
  • She was chancellor of the University of Durham from 1981 to 1990. The main hall in Dunelm House, the Student Union building, is named the Fonteyn Ballroom in her honour. Also, the foyer to the Great Hall of University College, Durham in Durham Castle is named after Dame Margot Fonteyn. Fonteyn Court, one of the accommodation buildings at the Parsons Field site of St. Cuthbert's Society, is also named in her honour.
  • Margot Fonteyn was one of five "Women of Achievement" selected for a set of British stamps issued in August 1996.
  • In her hometown of Reigate, a statue stands in tribute [1].


Fonteyn wrote the Introduction for Wushu! The Chinese Way To Family Health and Fitness.[8] The book was translated for the Western market by Timothy Tung from a series of official handbooks published in China by The People's Sports Publishing House, Beijing.

Fonteyn has a school named in her honour, the only school her estate has so allowed – in Peekskill, New York,

Film and television

Fonteyn and Nureyev starred together in a colour film of Swan Lake in 1967. Under the guidance of director Paul Czinner, they also filmed their famous version of Romeo and Juliet in 1966.

Fonteyn had appeared with Michael Somes in a live US television colour production of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty (1955), for the anthology series Producers' Showcase, on NBC. This production has been preserved on black-and-white kinescope, and released on DVD. Fonteyn starred with Somes in a 1958 British TV production of The Nutcracker. (This is not to be confused with the live US television production telecast by CBS on Playhouse 90.)

The BBC made a film about Fonteyn in 2009, based on Daneman's biography and starring Anne-Marie Duff as the ballerina. It aired on 30 November 2009.[9]

Tony Palmer made a documentary about Fonteyn, titled simply "Margot" (2005). It includes interviews with Nureyev, Frekerick Ashton, Roland Petit, Ninette de Valois, Robert Helpman, Lynn Seymour, Fonteyn's mother and other relatives, and various members of the Arias family.

Main roles


  • "The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative and the second is disastrous."
  • "Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike."
  • "Life offstage has sometimes been a wilderness of unpredictables in an unchoreographed world."
  • "Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable."


External links

  • Brief bio at
  • The Ballerina Gallery - Margot Fonteyn
  • Margot Fonteyn at PeoplePlay UK
  • Brief bio at Surrey Choicenet
  • Brief bio at "My Hero" project
  • Memories of Margo
  • The Margot Fonteyn Academy of Ballet
  • Internet Movie Database
Academic offices
Preceded by
Malcolm MacDonald
Chancellor of the University of Durham
Succeeded by
Sir Peter Ustinov
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