As a troubled child in Lisbon, Marcelino Sambé endured heartbreak.
His father died young, his mother could not cope and he was placed with a foster family.
Then one day he showed his psychologist his African dancing.
“She just thought I should audition for the dance school,” he said.
Yesterday, 14 years after taking his first ballet steps, Sambé reached the summit of the dance world, becoming only the second black male dancer ever to join the Royal Ballet’s top rank.
“I am blown away and sweating from every pore,” Sambé, 25, said minutes after being summoned into the office of Kevin O’Hare, the Royal Ballet director, to be told of his promotion to principal.
“I never imagined something like the Royal Ballet and to be nurtured all these years and so carefully developed . . . It’s been such a beautiful journey. I was not an easy young man but I have been very lucky that I have had teachers who had put in so much effort.”
Sambé said that while his childhood in Portugal was “not orthodox” it had been “beautiful”.
“My parents couldn’t take care of me after a certain age,” he said, adding that after his father died his mother “struggled to make ends meet”.
“I found this amazing [foster] family,” he said. His birth mother had “understood what I needed and helped me move on and get a better life for myself”.
“They are the ones who will be most proud,” he said of his foster parents, Fernanda and Manuel Barroso, and his sister, Maria, who is also a dancer.
The siblings bonded over dancing, staying late at dance school working together while Fernanda would wait outside “for as long as we needed to be waited for . . . she did it gladly and really believed in us”. He added: “It is the most incredible, most humbling and most generous journey that I have been on.”
As a teenager he secured a place at the Royal Ballet’s Upper School, graduating into the company during the 2012-13 season, and has since progressed rapidly through the ranks. He has won critical acclaim for many roles including his Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and for the role he created in Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern.
He said he was hoping to be given the opportunity to tackle the “princely” roles such as the Nutracker Prince and Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake.
“I am excited to be doing all sorts of works and would not want to be labelled as a dancer,” he said, adding that O’Hare had always given him “the right roles at the right time”.
He said: “I am sure along the way I will find a lot of those princely roles that I really want to do but I am also excited about new work.”
While the diversity of dancers in the Royal Ballet and other British companies has broadened greatly in recent years, it is still an artform perceived to have a white bias.
It was only last year, for example, that pointe ballet shoes in colours that match darker skin tones were released in Britain.
Carlos Acosta, who was the first black dancer to be appointed principal at the Royal Ballet, had been a huge influence, Sambé acknowledged.
His performances with Francesca Hayward, who is of mixed race, have been rapturously received.
“When I came to London I was so inspired by the cultural diversity of the city and at the company [Royal Ballet] I saw the exact same thing reflected on the stage,” he said.
“And to be of the legacy of this theatre that has opened the doors to all artists no matter how they look or who they are or where they came from, is probably one of the things that makes me most excited about this promotion.”
He said that Acosta, who has previously spoken of his difficult childhood in Cuba, had had a similar “trajectory” adding: “Being part of the same legacy as him is mindblowing to me.”
Despite the notorious tribulations and injuries of the ballet world — not to mention the personal sacrifices that have to be made — Sambé said he had been “able to develop both sides of me”.
“I have a beautiful partner, he is one that I will think about forever. I pride myself to have a very well-balanced life. I love ballet. It’s a huge part of who I am but I love colour, clothes, parties, meeting people, I paint, I love music and I really love wine,” he said.
“You become a Sunday expert,” he added. “You fit everything else in on a Sunday.”