Arts and Culture

Actor Jon Huffman remembers when he first met Barbara Cullen. 

“I had been cast in a show and she was living in Missouri,” he said. “She took a long bus ride that she couldn’t afford, had no money to go back, and auditioned and got the job.” 

That was in the mid-1980s and the show was the musical “Gypsy” at the Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville, Ind.

Huffman would soon learn that the faith and determination exhibited on that day was quintessential Cullen. The two started working together, became friends and then “something more.” Huffman said Cullen was the love of his life and, after more than 30 years together, he had to say good bye last week.

Cullen died Friday, following a heart attack. She was 65. 

Cullen, who grew up near Cincinnati and attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, was a beloved figure in the Greater Louisville arts community, having been the resident choreographer at Derby Dinner for more than 20 years, as well as a frequent performer. She also choreographed for Kentucky Shakespeare and was perhaps best known as a caring and gifted dance teacher. 

After Huffman shared the news of Cullen’s death on Facebook, there was an outpouring of love from students, friends and fellow thespians. 

Late Friday evening, many gathered at Central Park Stage in Old Louisville, where Kentucky Shakespeare performs. They illuminated the park with candles and the flashlights on their phones, and shared memories of “Barb.”

“Barb took care of all of us, whether it was teaching us how to dance, teaching us how to live with peace and grace and kindness, teaching us how to love a good show and how to accessorize,” Beth Craig Hall, of Dancers Center for Training where Cullen taught, said at the vigil.

Courtesy Jon Huffman

Barbara Cullen

‘Tiny Dancer’

Cullen was a dynamic performer. 

“She was an amazing singer, and a songwriter,” Huffman said. “She was always singing around the house.”

She also danced around the house, and excelled particularly at tap. Huffman said she could just listen to a tap phrase and recreate it on the sound alone. 

“She usually did it by scatting, by singing it, heard the rhythm and that way she could figure it out. And it made it so she [could] go to auditions, as a short woman in the back row, and not have to see what the auditioner was doing. She could hear it and repeat it, which stunned a lot of people.” 

Cullen’s stature at 5’2” is why Huffman often called her, “Tiny Dancer.”

“It was kind of the bane of her existence because it prevented her from being able to get a lot of professional work at a time when choreographers were looking for six-foot, long-legged women to dance in chorus lines,” Huffman said. 

But her height was no measure of her abilities on stage and in the dance studio, especially when working with students, Huffman said. She was a dedicated teacher. 

“She had these notebooks in which she wrote down every moment of every class, before she taught it. And never ever, ever repeated a class,” he said. “And so she would spend as much time preparing, as she did teaching.”

Jon Huffman

Classroom notebooks.

She demanded a good work ethic, but always in a fun and loving way, and didn’t want her students to experience the same kind of cruelty she did from her dance teachers growing up. 

“Her students would come in, they would get a hug, and when they were done, she told them, ‘You were wonderful today.’” 

Nikki Raderer Gregory’s daughter has taken dance classes from Cullen since 2017. 

In a Facebook message, she wrote that Cullen was “the most positive, happy, person I have ever met.” 

“Just watching the love that she had for her art, and more importantly for my daughter filled me with joy on many occasions,” she wrote. “She has given my daughter soooo much. She will never be replaced, and there is a huge hole in both of our hearts.”

Cullen kept at it during quarantine, teaching via Zoom right up till her heart attack.

A ‘Great Loss’ for Greater Louisville arts

Kentucky Shakespeare producing artistic director Matt Wallace described Cullen as a force of nature.  

“I think a Shakespeare quote that fits Barb well is, ‘though she be but little, she is fierce,’” Wallace said. “And she came in a smaller package, but was fiery and funny.”

She was like family to the Kentucky Shakespeare company, Wallace said, and her death is a “great loss” for the community.

Lee Buckholz, producing artistic director for Derby Dinner Playhouse, worked with Cullen for years. He said he’s never known another choreographer as driven as her. 

“Just remarkably focused, always prepared and just a joy to work with,” Buckholz said. “It was always so much fun, there were lots of laughs.”

Buckholz said “one of the things that Barb did the best” is understand what skill levels she had in the room and was able to “modify her choreography, even on the spot… so that it looks better on your body.” 

“She was really fantastic about that. So she was always able to make people look good at what they were doing.”

Actor and director Peter Riopelle met Cullen in early 2003. She choreographed “1776,” the first production Riopelle did with Derby Dinner.

Brian Owens

Jon Huffman and Barb Cullen at 2020 Shakespeare in Love Gala.

In an email, he said she was kind, funny and passionate. But he hopes she’s most remembered for the love she shared with her partner Jon Huffman. Riopelle felt they were soul mates.  

“It is this enduring, unmeasurable, unbreakable love and devotion…  that I will most remember and miss about her,” he said. “She was/is one of a kind, and she will never be forgotten or replaced,” he said. 

Huffman said dance was still on her mind even after she had been admitted to the hospital following her heart attack.

“She didn’t really recognize me and she couldn’t say my name. But suddenly, she looked up at the ceiling. And she started saying, arms up, arms up, glissade, changment, pas de bourrée… And the nurses thought it was gibberish. But it was absolutely choreography… It was perfectly her.”

He hopes Cullen’s legacy will be showing that you can have a career in the arts — that success isn’t defined by being a star, but rather in how you use your art to inspire others. 

“Being in the Arts is a passion,” Cullen told local arts writer and critic Keith Waits in an interview last spring. “I realized early on that to stay in the business and make a living, I needed to be able to do it all: Direct, Choreograph, Perform, Teach; especially because I am a woman… I try to learn something new every day — a new tap step, a new song, a new piano riff. I am so blessed to still be doing what I love and thrilled to be doing it in LOUISVILLE!”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.