Arlene Phillips: “Dance was an escape for me”

Dame Arlene Phillips (78) on what gives life bounce.

arlene phillips

by Lorna White |

Dancer and choreographer Arlene Phillips isn't shy about people knowing she's over 70 – not that she looks or acts it!

Best known for her 4 year stint as one of Strictly Come Dancing's formidable judging panel (despite turning down the job three times!) from the show's inception in 2004 until 2008.

Arlene is also the choreographer of numerous West End and Broadway musicals, films and television shows.

In recognition of her services to the performing arts, as well as her charity work, Arlene was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2001 Birthday Honours, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to dance and charity and most recently Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2021 Birthday Honours for services to dance and charity.

"After the Grenfell tragedy I remember almost immediately thinking: “I'm going to do something to raise funds.” Within three weeks, we had a huge concert at the Adelphi Theatre. I wanted the money to go to kids who’ll be affected by this on and on. To give them an opportunity for dance or art lessons or to play football. There are still kids today in dance classes funded by money raised.

"I know what it's like to have nothing. I know about loss at an early age. (Arlene was 15 when her mum died from leukaemia aged 43) It gives you a different perspective. Dance was an escape for me. It held me together. We all need a place we feel is good to us."

Arlene Phillips' secret to looking young

So just how has Arlene managed to defy the years and stay looking so fabulous right into her Seventies?

"What keeps you young as the years go by is to let them. They’re a number, but you don't have to adhere to that number.

"At 65, you can retire, but those rules don't necessarily apply. I’m very childlike in a way. I enjoy youth. I love the company of the young performers I work with and listening to them and their way of dealing with the world. And I love my grandchildren – Lila (two-and-a-half) and Emme (eight months). I love my time with them. Watching them grow is a joy."

“Keeping active and filling each day keeps me young,” she says. “I’m still dancing all the time and I’m always up for taking on new challenges."

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"And luckily, my health and fitness is still at the same level as it’s been for a long time.”

Getting older brings with it plenty of pluses, to boot, says Arlene. “The great advantage of getting older is that I can kick my heels off and not worry about what everyone’s going to think about me or what I say. I really believe confidence comes with age."

Hot Gossip

In Britain, Arlene first became a household name as the director and choreographer of Hot Gossip, a British dance troupe which she formed in 1974, using students she was teaching at the time. Hot Gossip spent two years performing in a London night club before being spotted by the British television director, David Mallet. By 1978 Hot Gossip became a regular feature of The Kenny Everett Show, and made their only hit record, backing Sarah Brightman on "I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper", a disco song which reached number 6 in the British music chart.

Reflecting back on her lifetime in dance, Arlene says, "I wonder whether passions are born within you or there's a moment in your life you discover something. I’m passionate about dance. I love going to work every day. I only wish everyone could find that same passion. It’s energising. I’m always bounding around. I sometimes feel a bit like Tigger.

"I been so lucky to work with the people I have. Kenny Everett was such a loving soul. He made you feel you were the only person in the room. It was that intensity he had I’ve wanted to follow. When you're speaking to somebody, don't dart your eyes all over the place."

Arlene has also worked with stars such as Elton John and Freddie Mercury. "Elton John’s generosity is extraordinary and the joy its brought makes you realise how important it is to share what you have. Freddie Mercury taught me to imagine. Close your eyes and dream. Make it happen. Anything’s possible. Even the girl from Manchester could be a Dame.

“I’ve learned in particular that you’ve not got to let criticism or rejection tear you apart. If you ever think ‘oh, I wish this thing had happened, or I wish it hadn’t’, just give yourself a little window to go off for a few hours, sulk, get it out of your system and then carry on. If you want to do something you’re passionate about, especially in this industry, you have to take the rough with the smooth.”

Looking after dad

For all her many great successes Arlene has faced her fair share of life challenges.

Aged just 15, Arlene's mother died from leukaemia, aged 43, leaving her dad to bring up their family of three children. Then, just as Arlene was starting to make her name as a television personality, her beloved dad, Abraham, was diagnosed with dementia – an experience that she describes as “devastating”.

“Dad was extremely sharp and would walk miles every day, so to see him start to get lost on these wonderful walks was awful.” Although Arlene’s father passed away in 2000, she is still an active supporter of the Alzheimer’s Society.

Is Arlene Phillips married?

Phillips and her partner, Angus Ion, have been together since 1985. She met Angus, a set builder, on the set of the music video for the Freddie Mercury song "I Was Born to Love You".

What's Arlene Phillips doing now?

Arlene's also keen to make the most of every single day. She's certainly being kept on her toes with her latest project, as choreographer for Grease: The Musical, which is currently touring the UK.

Did you know...?

  • Arlene choreographed the 1982 film, Annie, and the Duran Duran song The Wild Boys, named Best British Video at the 1985 BRIT Awards

  • Hot Gossip were particularly noted for the risque nature of their costumes, duly noted and disapproved of by Mary Whitehouse

  • Arlene was a member of the judging panel for Strictly Come Dancing, alongside Len Goodman, Craig Revel Horwood, Bruno Tonioli, until 2008

  • Arlene has also been a judge on the UK version of So You Think You Can Dance?

  • She has two daughters: Alana (born 1979), from an earlier relationship, and Abi (born 1991), with her current partner

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