Obits for All: Barbara F. Cullen

Barbara F. Cullen died Dec. 18, 2020 at the age of 65.

Written by her many friends, dance students and creative collaborators, and by her life partner, Jon Huffman.

If you’d like to share a memory about Barbara, you can do so here: Obits for All

Photos of Barbara F. Cullen

What’s your earliest memory of her? 

“Being in another room, at a theater audition, hearing this incredible soprano voice — a belt like I’d never heard in person. When she came out, I was waiting to audition, and our eyes met. And, though it took several years of friendship to get there, we both knew, in that moment, that ‘we’ would happen.” — her life partner, Jon Huffman

“Watching her audition at Derby Dinner Playhouse in 1985. We all said, ‘Who is that girl?’” 

Gypsy, late 1980s, Derby Dinner Playhouse.” 

“When she was choreographing me dancing as a monkey in a Jungle Book children’s musical. As much as I struggled, she would never give up.” 

“Meeting for the first time and hearing her say, ‘Love you guys!’ after saying goodbye.”

If you made a playlist of songs that remind you of her, what’s one song that would be on it?

“One of the first tap dances we did together was to a song she loved called ‘Happy Phantom,’ by Tori Amos. I listen to the song almost daily; it’s about a woman contemplating how life as a ghost would be and what life on Earth would be like for those she loved. I like to picture her as ‘the happy phantom chasing nuns out in the yard.’” 

“‘Sway,’ by Michael Bublé. It was one of the last songs we danced to.” 

“‘My Funny Valentine.’ She loved a good torch song.” 

“‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,’ by Leo Sayer.” 

“Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer.’ That was her song. That was her.”

What was your favorite thing to do together?

“Being next to each other, preferably holding hands — anywhere, any time.” — her life partner

“I literally took tap to get my ‘Barb fix’ because she was always so busy. This is the way I could be in her orbit.” 

What was her most noticeable quirk?

“That’s so hard because there were so many things that made Barb, well, Barb. She was like the main character in a movie you’d want to watch over and over.” 

“The fact that she could dance beautifully while having severe hip problems amazed me.” 

“Communicating with ghosts.”

“She danced up and down the aisles in the grocery. Jon filmed her, and we’ve all loved watching her at her finest. She made Kroger look like a dance floor.” 

What did she look like? 

“Barb was a tiny little thing with short, bright-red hair and a smile that could make the most upset person happy. She had big eyes and always a layer of gray eye shadow.” 

“Spunky joy!” 

“She had a smile that said, ‘We’re going to have fun together.’” 

What story do you find yourself remembering?

“She was unfailingly encouraging and positive in her work with actors, especially actors who weren’t dancers. I also remember her sitting on the bleachers in the back of the amphitheater in Central Park at almost every Kentucky Shakespeare performance — keeping watch over all of us, especially her Jon Huffman.” 

“Children she didn’t know — over the years, hundreds of them — would run to her, latch on to her and not let go, like they’d known her before. She believed that they had known each other. Before.” — her life partner

What details about her will you always remember? 

“Small but mighty. She always wore this distinctive silver necklace/bracelet that was malleable — you could shape it in different ways. Jon, her partner, gave gifts to some of us who performed during the memorial, and I immediately started crying when I saw that same kind of necklace inside the gift bag.” 

“I always remember her necklace — a rope-like metal thing that bends into new shapes every time you put it on. She wore it every day. I have one of them in my closet now, and I’ve been brave enough to wear it only once.” 

“She wore leg warmers and all black, always. She wore a scrunched-up silver necklace, and when she tapped she had black-and-white shoes that I always loved.” 

“Her tight hugs that always felt so genuine, the way she wrote down her dance notes in her notebook, her favorite warmups and cool-downs, her unwavering positivity, her intolerance of cruelty, the look on her face when you did something really well — which was almost identical to the look on her face upon first seeing you, as if it was a miraculous and pleasant surprise.” 

“She loved wearing wonderful laced bohemian dresses with combat boots.” 

“Her stories about spirits and spirit guides.” 

“Dance shoes everywhere. Her lap full of dogs. Bursting out singing, spontaneously —  a bar or two from the beginning, middle or end of a song — then ending just as abruptly, going on with what she was doing. Waking up smiling every day. Falling asleep any time she had an extra moment to sleep. Remembering every detail of every dream she ever had. Communicating with the spirits in our old and haunted house — especially the little girl, Rosalind, who seems to have died in our house as a child. The bendable ‘snake’ necklace that was her signature. Her winter shawl in the Cullen-family plaid. The shade of her hair. She would devise an entire musical’s choreography while sitting on the floor gazing into the distance. Only when she was done would she get on her feet and try out the steps herself.” — her life partner

Can you think of a time she did or said something that had an impact on you? 

“‘Great job, kiddo.’ She gave each of her students the gift of courage to try and fail safely, and to know that, no matter what the end result may be, you were still special and worthy of love from someone like Barb.” 

“Didn’t matter if you were eight or 80. You were one of her kiddos.” 

“Barb choreographed my daughter’s dance auditions for college and helped her tape them. She had notebooks full of choreography that she could have pulled from, but she did a new dance.” 

“She came to see many of my performances at CenterStage, and she would always be crying after the show, telling me and everyone how proud she was.” 

“Barb was my dance teacher at a time in my life when I probably should no longer have been dancing, but she made me feel like I could still do anything.” 

What’s something you did together in Louisville that you’ll never forget?

“Seances at Barb and Jon’s house.” 

What made her cuss?

“Fast costume changes!” 

“Donald Trump.” 

“Injustice. Dishonesty. And she could cuss really well.” — her life partner

When you close your eyes and picture her, how do you see her?

“I see Barb in her black-and-white tap shoes and dance clothes doing a warmup. I see her holding her beloved dog, Molly. I see her teaching a tap class before her hip replacements, sitting in a chair, using a cane with joy and positivity.” 

“Twirling around a stage, doing pirouettes, as the stage rises to the heavens.”

“Singing, dancing, laughing — all at once.” — her life partner

What’s one thing you want readers to know about her?

“She was the best human being I ever knew.” — her life partner