The Ballerina Who Tried To Overthrow Panama’s Government

By Debra Kelly on Monday, January 18, 2016
Performing dancers with high ISO grainy film and limited  DOF.
“A revolution is not a trail of roses. [ . . . ] A revolution is a fight to the death between the future and the past.” —Fidel Castro

In A Nutshell

When world-renowned ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn married the son of a Panamanian president, she soon found herself wrapped up in a comedy of errors backed by Fidel Castro. The goal was to overthrow the pro-US government, but when authorities in Panama got wind of the coup, it all went downhill, in spite of all the steps they’d taken, like having a New York–based model source green shirts and white armbands for the rebel forces.

The Whole Bushel

In 1959, a bizarre plot unfolded in Panama. The attempted coup and the roles of the few well-known players would be kept a secret for the next five decades, and it involved a prima ballerina, her diplomat husband, and a British model.

You don’t have to know anything about the world of dance to recognize the name Dame Margot Fonteyn. She—along with her partner, Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev—is at the top of the list of dancing’s elite. Getting there is no small amount of work, but it turns out that it doesn’t make you capable of being a successful international spy.

Fonteyn was married to Dr. Roberto Arias, the son of a former Panamanian president and British ambassador. In 1959, the government was a pro-US organization that had some powerful enemies, including Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Castro might have backed the attempted coup, but they could have done with a little more guidance.

All the action started when Fonteyn approached a friend, who was working as a model in New York at the time. Fonteyn needed her friend, Judy Tatham, to get some shirts for her. The model had connections in the clothing industry, and Fonteyn needed about 500 green shirts and as many white armbands, which they’d use to label those that were a part of the coup.

Tatham, who found out that the shirts were for a revolution, thought it was perfect timing. She had a break coming up, and she wanted to go, too.

So she got Arias and Fonteyn their shirts, and packed all the armbands into some large boxes for sanitary towels with the assumption that no one was going to look twice at a model who was carrying several giant boxes of sanitary towels with her on vacation in Panama. She, her armbands, and her boxes headed south. Arias showed her around the country for a week before she went back to New York where even she didn’t know the full story of what happened next, in part because of a falling-out.

Authorities in Panama had already heard of the planned attempt, so when they disrupted the rebels’ attempts at getting themselves organized off the coast, the whole thing started to immediately crumble. Fonteyn decided to use her own yacht as a decoy, which sounds a bit daring at first glance. The declassified documents show that it was more panic than anything, and she started throwing evidence overboard.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all the right evidence. She ditched the armbands over the side of the ship, but boxes of incriminating letters remained. Those were ultimately buried on shore, along with the rebels’ weapons cache. All that was found almost immediately, and Fonteyn was arrested when she inexplicably headed out of what would have been a safe zone—the canal area—and into Panama’s territory. Released within a day in spite of all the evidence they had against her, she headed first to a Brazilian embassy and then out of the country.

This was only three years after she had been officially named a Dame of the Order of the British Empire, and those same British officials that had lauded her grace and skill were now condemning her for not only organizing and participating in a coup (no matter how badly), but by getting all sorts of friendly with Castro and doing it all while Prince Philip was visiting Panama on official business.

Fonteyn’s assurances that they had no intention of claiming the canal for their own if they’d succeeded showed that she’d kind of missed the point as to why everyone was so mad at her, leading many to believe that her role in the whole plan was simply as a puppet of her politically minded, ambitious husband.

Also bizarre was her easy acceptance of the British government’s request that her husband just not come back for a while. After that meeting, she was even kind enough to send a thank-you note to the diplomat who’d been speaking with her, suggesting that they meet for drinks when the whole thing had blown over and they weren’t caught up in all this plotting-and-overthrowing business.

Ultimately, Arias was allowed back in Panama, where he was shot and paralyzed by a rival. Fonteyn continued to dance—in part to pay for his care—and ultimately also retired to Panama, dying there in 1991.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: The Great Ballerina Was Not the Greatest Revolutionary
BBC News: Dame Margot Fonteyn and the Panama sanitary towel coup
The Guardian: Dame Margot Fonteyn: the ballerina and the attempted coup in Panama