Bussell was born to John Crittle, an English-based Australian businessman and his English wife Andrea.
After the couple divorced when Darcey was three, her mother remarried and Darcey was adopted by her mother's new husband, Australian dentist Philip Bussell. The family spent some time in Australia, where Darcey attended school before they returned to London for Darcey to be educated at the Fox Primary School.
Bussell began her professional training at the Arts Educational School, a specialist dance and musical theatre school in London. At the age of 13, she moved to continue her studies at the Royal Ballet Lower School, a leading international ballet school based at White Lodge, Richmond Park. At 16, she progressed to the Royal Ballet Upper School in Baron's Court, before graduating into the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet in 1987. Whilst studying at the Royal Ballet School, she appeared in a number of school productions, including performances at the Royal Opera House.
While she was still at school, the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan had noticed her talent, and in 1988 he gave her the leading role in his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas to Benjamin Britten's music, causing her to move to The Royal Ballet. A year later, in December 1989, on the opening night of the show, she was promoted to Principal, at the time the youngest ballerina to be given this honour.
Her many roles include Masha in Winter Dreams and Princess Rose in The Prince of the Pagodas, both choreographed by MacMillan, as well as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Nikiya and Gamzatti in La Bayadère, the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Manon in Manon, and Giselle in Giselle.
In 2006 she announced her retirement as a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, though stayed with the company as "guest principal artist".
She retired from ballet on 8 June 2007 with a performance of MacMillan's "Song of the Earth" (music Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde). It was performed at the Royal Opera House in London, and at the end of the piece she received a standing ovation lasting over 8 minutes. It was also broadcast live on BBC Two.
Despite retiring from the professional stage, Bussell remains deeply involved in the dance world. She continues to be a patron of the International Dance Teachers Association and has also joined the board of directors of Sydney Dance Company. She is also a recipient of the Carl Alan Award for contributions to dance.
She was awarded the OBE in 1995 and the CBE in 2006. She guest starred as herself in the popular BBC1 comedy The Vicar of Dibley in 1998.
Bussell has recently teamed up with Katherine Jenkins and they plan to stage a song and dance production to pay tribute to the stars who have inspired them which include Madonna and Judy Garland. With a £1 million budget, the show was launched in Manchester in November and is entitled Viva la Diva. Bussell and Jenkins performed a segment of Viva la Diva before the Queen at the 79th Royal Variety Performance which was televised on 9 December 2007.
She joined the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing judging panel in the final stages of the 2009 series. In the semi-final of the competition she danced a jive with the professional dancer Ian Waite.
On 18 July 2009, Bussell received an honorary doctorate (DLitt) from the University of Oxford. During the ceremony the University's Public Orator noted that she "adds to technical mastery, charm and imagination, in such a way that she seems to reveal the grace of her personality as well as the grace of movement. Moreover, she wants those who are perhaps put off by the grand portals of the Royal Opera House to enjoy the pleasures that ballet affords."
Bussell has been announced as the "Godmother" of MS Azura, a 115,000 ton cruise liner, which enters service with the P&O Cruises fleet in April 2010. She is producing a special dance performance to staged during the the launch party, featuring dancers of the Royal Ballet and students of the Royal Ballet School. The launch will take placr at the Mayflower Cruise Terminal in Southampton and Bussell will also perform the traditional champagne breaking ceremony to christen the ship.