Remembering Barb Cullen

By Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Barb Cullen once tried to show me a dance step. A simple ballroom move, I stood stiffly, arm around her waist and her hand in mine as if we were about to foxtrot when she looked me in the eye so intently that I was a bit gobsmacked. In trying to teach me, even for a brief moment, anything about dance, she may have met her match, but she had surely stolen a piece of my heart.

Sometime later I stood at the barre in Vault 1031 and with elephantine grace allowed her to put me through the paces of the first three ballet moves. I was just goofing around, trying to make her and Jon Huffman (her devoted partner) laugh. Jon easily obliged, but Barb was ready to take me on as a student, undeterred by my complete lack of natural ability. 

She never backed down from a challenge.

When the first Arts-Louisville theatre awards were coming together, Barb and Jon were fully committed as producers, but when we struck out on the first two choices for a host, Barb pointed to me: “You should do it! You should do it! You would be great!!!” I was not convinced, but it seemed churlish to deny her.

She was in my corner. How fortunate I was.

Once she was for you, she fought for you, believed in you with fierce determination and righteous fury. To disappoint her would seem a violation of that indestructible faith. I count myself lucky but understand full well that I was simply one of countless many.  

As a performer, there are clips of her singing classic American songs. Type her name in YouTube and you will find her impassioned renditions of “One for the Road” and “Stormy Weather.” It wasn’t just that she didn’t hold anything back, she made those songs her own as any great singer would, and she moved in a way that got the very most out of a slinky gown.

As a choreographer, she brought out the best in her dancers and made people who never trained look at least…respectable as dancers. At an impromptu candlelight gathering last night, there was a common acknowledgement, particularly from actors, of how much they “butchered” her choreography and a similar acknowledgement that she mostly just responded with enthusiasm: “You did GREAT, kiddo!”

The gathering was live streamed by Tara Bassett.

Most importantly, she was a teacher. Fostering new generations to follow her in keeping musical theatre dance forms alive. Perhaps that is her greatest legacy, as it should be to all who take up the noble and too often thankless task of shaping young talent.

And finally, with Jon’s permission, she contributed a new page to the catalog of famous last words, a loving taskmaster’s swan song to her students: 

“Arms up! Arms up! All right, glissade, glissade, pas de bouree! Arms up!”

A teacher to the very end.

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM /, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for