Tamara Karsavina was born in St. Petersburg, the daughter of a famous principal dancer and teacher with the Russian Imperial Ballet, Platon Konstantinovich Karsavin, and his wife Anna Iosifovna. He had been a pupil of Marius Petipa, the legendary teacher and choreographer. Among his own students was Michel Fokine, a future partner and choreographer for his daughter. Although originally her father opposed her becoming a dancer, he relented and became her first teacher. In 1894, she was accepted at the Imperial Ballet School, studying with great masters such as Enrico Cecchetti. Needing income, she graduated early and got a job with the Imperial Ballet's corps de ballet. She rose swiftly through the ranks to become a leading ballerina, performing in the entire Petipa repertory, including the dual role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. She was acclaimed for her technical skill and the wit, intelligence, and emotion she showed in her dancing. In 1909, she began dancing in Paris regularly with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. She's best known today for the many famous roles she created in this company, including the title role in Fokine's ballet The Firebird, partnered by Vaslav Nijinsky. Karsavina left Russia permanently after the Russian Revolution and settled in Paris. In 1918, a year after divorcing her first husband, she remarried to the British diplomat Henry James Bruce, with whom she had a son. She helped found the British Royal Academy of Dancing in 1920. Karsavina retired in the 1920s but occasionally assisted with the revival of ballets in which she had danced and helped to create new ones. In 1959, she advised Sir Frederick Ashton on his important revival of La fille mal gardée for the Royal Ballet. She also coached Margot Fonteyn. Her writings included articles on technique for the journal Dancing Times and the text Classical Ballet: The Flow of Movement (1962).
She published a memoir called Theatre Street (1930), named for the street where the Imperial Ballet School was located.