There are few moments of joy for Princess Diana to experience in season four of The Crown, but when they do arrive, they’re often tethered to music. She boogies down to Stevie Nicks with friends at a club, right on the cusp of being a paparazzi target; she roller skates to noted babes Duran Duran as she acclimates to her new palace digs; and, at the beginning of episode nine, she tries (and fails) to impress her husband, Prince Charles, by performing a contemporary dance routine to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” in front of thousands of adoring Royal Opera House patrons. Unlike some of the creative liberties the show has taken in recent years, Diana’s dance was very much a real-life tabloid sensation when it occurred in December 1985, although the circumstances surrounding it were a bit different. (And, alas, there’s no video evidence.)
Wayne Sleep, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, was Diana’s partner in pizzazz on that memorable evening — the duo had been friendly with each other for years leading up to the performance, with Diana summoning him to help her concoct a special Christmas present for Prince Charles. (The Crown framed it as a birthday surprise.) Sleep and Diana were able to practice in secret for weeks leading up to the evening, with only a few people privy to the “very Bob Fosse” moves that they were perfecting. Decades later, Sleep still considers it to be one of the defining dances of his career, and he was happy to reminisce with Vulture about the experience. Read on to learn more about why Diana was keen on that particular song, the audience’s actual reaction, and Sleep’s post-dance meeting with Charles.
Have you watched The Crown’s reinterpretation of your dance?
I have. It’s brought home to me how much our friendship meant to each other. Certain bits aren’t quite right, though.
What was your relationship with Princess Diana like prior to this spectacular moment?
I knew her for several years prior. She didn’t have many friends at all. She was quite isolated. She was a bit of a loner and that’s something we had in common. I wasn’t welcomed back to the Royal Opera House at times, because they thought I was untoward when I went “commercial” for a bit of time — Andrew Lloyd Webber had hired me to play the first Mr. Mistoffelees when Cats premiered on the West End. Let’s just say they stuck their noses up at that. When me and Diana did meet, we had something in common in a funny sort of way, and that bonded us. But what she originally wanted was somebody to teach her about dance when she took it up again. This must have been around 1980. She wanted to keep fit not at the gym but with dance. However, I couldn’t come and teach her because I was always traveling. So I sent my dance captain down to London to meet her whenever Diana was free.
When did you two begin to conspire about the dance?
I’d been on tour mostly all my life, and I formed my own dance company, DASH, with the best contemporary, tap, jazz, and ballet dancers in the country. Everyone had to be able to do all of those four disciplines, which was the first time it had ever been done. The reason I’m saying this is because that’s what Diana loved — she loved everything that movement had to offer. This was the only place she could see all of that under one roof.
One day, a few years into her lessons, I asked the dance captain, So, how is Diana doing? What is she like to dance with? And she responded, Oh, she’s so lovely and so keen. But she wants to ring you up because she has a special request to make. A few days go by and the phone rings. A very shy voice goes, Is this Wayne Sleep? This is Diana. I go, Diana who? I had suddenly forgotten. Every time she sent me a card after she’d sign it “Diana, WALES.” That’s her humor. [Laughs.] So we finally arranged a time to meet, but I still had no idea what for.
What do you remember about that meeting?
She was dressed in a headband, pink leotard, tights, leg warmers, and jazz shoes. She was like a crane to me. She said, I’d like to dance a duet with you. I thought she must be crazy! It could be taken the wrong way, or she could get a much taller and more handsome boy from the ballet. But she was insistent and said, No, I want to do it with you, I want to be your uptown girl. I was like, You already are my uptown girl, darling, and you know it! She told me she got a recording of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” and she wanted it to be a surprise to her hubby for Christmas. She didn’t want him to know about it. Even though she was serious about doing a brilliant number, she had a glint in her eye and I thought we could make that work. It’s hard to work in humor with movement and dancing, but I knew we could do a duet where we try to outdance each other, like a competition. I suggested that and she said, Yes, that’s perfect!
One of the first questions she had was what I was going to wear. She said she wanted to wear a satin, below-the-knee dress with a whoosh to it and a golden hue. I said I wanted to wear a nice pair of white leather trousers and a pink shirt, and she thought that would be a nice look. We didn’t overdo it. But she was worried about her shoes. She wanted to wear flats for me since we had a noticeable height difference — I’m five-foot-two and she was around five-eleven. I was worried they would fall off, so we got an elastic sewn into the shoes. We had to cover all events if it went wrong. Shoes fall off more than you’d realize in ballet. We were prepared.
Why did she want “Uptown Girl”? Was she a big Billy Joel fan?
There was a music video that went with the song and she must’ve seen the video. There’s a lovely lady with a hat — she’s very chic and gets out of a car. Diana knew she could play that role of sophistication.
Since there isn’t a visual recording of your dance, can you speak to the dance’s actual structure and how it unfolded on the stage? What made it so humorous?
It wasn’t a serious dance by any means. It clocked in at three and a half minutes. We brought the house down with humor because they didn’t know what was coming next. I did double pirouettes and we did a lift, and there was also a combination of jazz hip rolls. It was very dynamic but nothing too difficult. Steps, lounges, transfers of weight. We both ran the diagonals and really covered the whole stage with just the two of us. And at the end, we joined each other. It was almost like a chorus line and a kick line. Our legs got higher and higher. The Crown made it so shoulder-y. It was a little more elegant than that, although we had a few innuendos. I’m not criticizing the show, though. When Diana walked on after I did my turns and jumps, she strode in like a tigress. We only did one rehearsal that day on a closed set. What I wanted her to see were the two spotlights on our faces — it’s a complete black void otherwise. She couldn’t have danced it better. I was the nervous one! I was shaking in the wings. What if she doesn’t like it? What if I dropped the future queen of England?
How did Diana sneak away from her box?
I was in the wings. You can see the royal box from there but not the normal audience. I told her, When I want you to leave the box, I’ll raise my hands and go, “NOW!” We met in the king’s smoking room backstage, which had all of this wonderful food from Fortnum & Mason. There were so many crackers. The first thing Diana said was, Will you have a cracker with me? Then she went and changed into her dress and jewelry.
How did the audience respond to her presence?
Unlike the show, the audience didn’t all shout at the beginning, because the whole audience was in shock. There were murmurs because they thought it was a look-alike. I figured that would happen. She did a few more steps with her signature smile and raise of her shoulder, almost signaling, Yes, it’s me. Then, collectively, they all realized who it really was. Everyone’s mouths gaped open. There was an intake of breath like they couldn’t believe it. The noise got bigger and bigger. We did eight curtain calls. I had to bow every time and I was like, You got to bow to the prince. And she said, No, I’m not bowing to him, he’s my hubby. You won’t get your OBE with those comments!
Did you consider doing an encore?
She wanted to do it again, and I said no. She loved it. I have the motto, leave them wanting more. And also the reason was because we only had one in-house photographer and nobody had time to get out their cameras. If we did it again … well, I didn’t want that to get out the next day. The person who took the photographs was sworn not to ever release them, but he did end up selling them about ten years ago. I think he got a quarter of a million dollars for them. None of the paparazzi or any media knew a thing about before the night, and that was a huge win for her. We achieved something without anybody having an inkling.
Yeah, how were you able to hide your rehearsals from everyone?
We would change our rehearsal rooms a lot — we’d go to the palace, we’d go to my personal studio in Kensington. It was surprisingly easy to dash around without being noticed. The only people who knew other than me and Diana were her detective, but he wasn’t allowed to come into our rehearsal room. Anne Beckwith-Smith, one of Diana’s ladies-in-waiting, also knew about it. Only me and Diana knew what the actual dance was, though. I think Anne was really worried. She thought, What were they doing in there? Blaring Billy Joel and laughing away?
Did you meet Charles after the performance?
Diana did want me to go with her to meet her husband. She got a little bit of cold feet after the dance. The heat had gone off a bit — it was 20 minutes later. The door was opened to the party they were having and I went, Happy Christmas, everybody!
How was Charles behaving?
Everything seemed fine. I think Diana thought, Just in case, I’ve got Wayne on my side. I’m going to keep my mouth closed on what it was like to be there. He had a raised eyebrow, you might say. It didn’t go any further than that at the party.
What was your relationship with Diana like in the years that followed? Did you two remain close?
We did. People would always ask me what we talked about when the doors closed. Her boys would always come first. I’d never ask a personal question if it was in the news. It was like being in a safe house for her. We’d kick our shoes off and just dance. People who’ve known each other for years — you don’t need to make a huge effort to make conversation. That’s how we were together and how it was like from the start. We really did have a terrible sense of humor. It was a relief. I just adored seeing her. One of my fondest memories of her was when she came to one of my performances and she went, Wayne, should I sit in the wings tonight or should I sit up front? I responded, Sit up front, it’s a much better view of the stage. And she went, Darling, do you want the view to be on you or me? That was our humor. [Laughs.]
Have your views on the performance changed over the past 35 years?
After watching The Crown, I realized the main thing I’ll be remembered for is dancing with Diana. You can understand what an impact that had. I could’ve never realized that a three-minute dance would be that epic — even worthy enough to be included in The Crown. It was a statement from her that said, I’ve tried everything, but now I’m going my own way. I think that’s what was told underneath. Diana wasn’t a dumb blonde. She was a lady. And she was now about to become her own person. That became her statement of independence.