‘The audience gasped when Princess Diana appeared’

Wayne Sleep remembers a remarkable dance duet at the Royal Opera House in December 1985

Our paths first crossed when she approached me for dance lessons in the early 1980s. Diana loved ballet, but she also wanted to learn jazz, tap and contemporary. Sadly, I couldn’t teach her, because I was away on tour so much. But she approached me again when she wanted to perform at the Royal Opera House – it was a private show for supporters and friends of the Royal Ballet. Charles was going to be in the audience and she wanted to surprise him; it was all top secret.

We met in a rehearsal studio in west London. She was in leg-warmers and a leotard. My first thought was, she’s too tall to dance with me, I’ll be a laughing stock: I’m 5ft 2in and she’s 5ft 11in. But I soon realised she had a good sense of humour, and that we could have some fun with our height difference. She’d already decided on the music: Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl.

On the night, I was first on stage. There was a big round of applause and I thought, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” The audience gasped when Diana appeared, as if they’d all taken one huge breath. The routine had a bit of everything: jazz, ballet, even a kickline. At one point, I pirouetted and she pushed me down; then I carried her across the stage. I remember thinking, “Don’t drop the future Queen of England.” She loved it, but was most thrilled we’d kept it secret from Charles, and our rehearsals away from the paparazzi.

She loved the freedom dancing gave her. A few days later, I got a letter. She wrote: “Now I understand the buzz you get from performing.”

After that, we saw each other fairly regularly. She came to my London performances, and would always pop into the dressing room afterwards. And she would often visit me for dinner at my flat in south Kensington. She would kick off her shoes and we’d have a giggle, talking about this and that: her kids, my work, nothing controversial. I’d cook, and she’d wash up. Her security would wait across the road, in my studio. Later, I knew things were going wrong in her marriage, but I never asked and she never brought it up.

I think we got on because we were quite similar: we were both loners; we both had to carve out our own paths (there were no traditional leading roles for me because of my height); we didn’t set much store by protocol. I would buy her silly postcards; she loved them, but couldn’t go into shops and buy them herself.

In 1995, these pictures – taken by the Royal Opera House’s photographer – appeared in the tabloids. No one knows for sure how they got hold of them. Diana got suspicious – by then, she didn’t know who to trust any more – and we drifted apart.

It doesn’t feel like 20 years since she died. I went to her funeral and was surrounded by people I didn’t know: officials, people from all the charities she supported. I always assumed she had lots of friends, but I don’t think she did. My most vivid memory of that day is the noise after Earl Spencer’s oration: it sounded like rain, getting louder and louder. Then we realised it was applause, coming from the crowds outside Westminster Abbey. It was overwhelming; we all got to our feet. The applause was started by the people – Diana would have loved that.

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