Dancing In Miss Audrey's Basement

Kristin K. Fouquet

© Copyright 2003 by Kristin K. Fouquet
Photo of Kristin at the dancing school.

It may not have been the famed Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia, but in a small basement in New Orleans, Louisiana, little girls were learning the graceful art of ballet, among other things.

This rented basement of an old house was the studio of Miss Audrey’s Dancing School. She taught beginner, intermediate, and advanced ballet classes. For nearly eight years of my young life, I could be found there every Wednesday afternoon for an hour. The hour for beginners differed from the other two levels because it was comprised of three segments: ballet, tap, and tumbling.

For this young New Orleanian, the most glamorous role a young lady could aspire to was that of the Mardi Gras Queen. In my humble definition, she was the Queen of Rex, the most prestigious Carnival Krewe. On Mardi Gras day, Rex, the King of Carnival, would ride up on his lofty float to Gallier Hall, where his Queen would be waiting for him. Upon his arrival, the two would toast with champagne. This elegant pageantry was the closest thing to a brush with royalty that I had ever experienced. All the gold and sparkling accessories dazzled the eye magnificently in the bright sunshine. The Queen’s name may have changed from year to year but from my adoring perspective, she was the same beautiful woman who wore a long gold gown, white long gloves, and a matching rhinestone crown and scepter.

So, on my first day of ballet class, a few months shy of my third birthday, I protested when Miss Audrey declared that we would all be prima ballerinas. I boldly shared my preference that I would much rather be a queen than a ballerina. Always the diplomat, Miss Audrey gently offered that we could all be ballerinas this time and that next time, we could all be queens. The following Wednesday, true to her word, Miss Audrey had choreographed a new routine where we each took a turn being the Queen for the day. I was thrilled with my reign as Queen and determined to make it last for more than just a turn in ballet class.

For months afterward, I carried around with me my own handmade scepter, a wooden kitchen spoon wrapped in aluminum foil. I slowly and proudly waved this improvised scepter over any bowing subjects in my midst. My parents generously allowed this little indulgence of mine until I became a bit overzealous one Sunday morning. Seeing the perfect opportunity during Mass, I successfully climbed up and stood on the pew. I happily waved my regal scepter over the seated congregation beneath me. A nice lady seated behind us silently clapped and bowed to me before my mother could drag me down from all my glory.

At Miss Audrey’s Dancing School, our standard uniform was a red leotard with alternating footwear. For the first twenty minutes of the beginner’s class, we would wear our soft ballet shoes and stand at the barre, where we practiced the five basic ballet positions along with plie´ and releve´. Miss Audrey instructed us that we should form a wide diamond when we bent into plie´ and that we could remember this by the phrase diamonds are a girl’s best friend. After ballet, we switched to shiny black tap shoes...heel, ball, and shuffle. Another twenty minutes later, after removing our shoes and socks, we rolled out a huge padded mat for our somersaults, back bends, cartwheels, and hand stands. At the end of the hour, the smell of worn leather and small sweaty feet filled the air as we changed into our street shoes. Tired, but rewarded for working our little bodies, we smiled as we said our good-byes to Miss Audrey in anticipation of the next week.

Our hard work was demonstrated at the annual recital. These recitals were not extravagant productions but rather fair entertainment with quaint performances complemented by colorful scenery and costumes created on a tight budget. The costume ballet shoes were usually provided for. We’d root through a big cardboard box of recycled gold or silver spray-painted ballet shoes to find our size indicated in black marker on the insoles. Miss Audrey and her mother, Rain, creatively designed the remainder of the costumes with definitions, diagrams, measurements, and explicit directions on how to produce them. However, it was the cooperating parents of the students who ultimately supplied the materials and the precious time in constructing them.

The costume base was always the red leotard. Then layers of cloth, netting, or cardboard could be put over or safety-pinned to it. I remember one recital began with “Genesis”. This was a tumbling number where we, bathing beauties dressed in old-fashioned bathing suits with painted cardboard suns pinned to them and matching sun hats, came out on stage doing hand stands. The costume for the next number, the “Universe” number, which was a space ballet, consisted of a red tutu worn over the leotard with silver balls, representing planets, and stars pinned to it. Silver ballet shoes and a pipe cleaner headband attached with one silver ball and star completed the look. The big finale was the tap number called “Our Night at the Met”. Dressed in puffy white sleeved shirts, skirts, and hair ribbons contrasted by black vests, aprons and sashes, we danced our little hearts out to the music of Dmitri Kabalevsky. Miss Audrey’s rule, stating that every piece of costume and all shoes had to be initialed, kept backstage from turning into total madness as mothers hysterically undressed and dressed their little dancers for each performance.

One year, our beginner tap class was doing a transportation number and I was not at all happy with my designated part as a truck; so I protested again. I considered the truck to be the least feminine vehicle on the road. Ever patient and accommodating, Miss Audrey asked me if I could have my choice, which make and model would I rather be. I dried my eyes when she said I could trade in my cardboard truck for a cardboard Volkswagen Beetle. For my solo performance one year, I was dressed as a Dutch girl but for other recitals, the costumes varied as much as a trumpet, a black Scottie dog, and China doll, among others.

Parental participation was always vital to these recitals and not just as makeshift costume assistants, dressers, and much-needed audience members. One year, my mother was assigned the esteemed honor of being “The Wind”. This role had her stand stage right and maneuver a large box fan set on high to gracefully blow the diaphanous flowing costumes and long scarves of the advanced dancers on center stage. Miss Audrey even acknowledged my mother, to her surprise, at the end of the recital and had her come out on stage and take a bow as the audience applauded “The Wind”.

Miss Audrey instructed us that if ever our costumes came apart or if we messed up during a number that we should just pretend that it didn’t happen because “the show must go on”. We were tested once when a girl’s trumpet hat fell off in mid-routine due to a popped piece of elastic. We made Miss Audrey proud because we danced around the fallen instrumental hat as if it didn’t exist. Between numbers, a frantic mother ran out on stage and retrieved it before the curtain rose again.

These recitals weren’t our only public appearances. We also performed for various charities, including The American Heart Association, and numerous local retirement homes and other long-term care facilities. Regardless of venue or audience, for every performance, we gave it our all. At the end of our routines, we would bask in the glamorous spotlight and graciously accept the applause for our efforts.
Just before I was to be promoted and fitted for toe shoes, a step, 
en pointe, I had been dreaming of for years, fate changed my dancing destiny. The owners of the old house that had Miss Audrey’s Dancing School in their basement decided to sell the building. The new owners opted to keep the basement for their own personal use instead of renting it out. Rather than find another location, Miss Audrey chose retirement and closed the school. After almost eight years of seeing her on a weekly basis, I missed her terribly. My parents tried sending me to other dancing schools and even a structured ballet academy, but I eventually lost interest in all of them. I usually stayed in their programs only through to the first recital or sometimes not even that long. In some way or other, they all lacked the fun and warmth of Miss Audrey’s school.
Photo of Miss Audrey and Kristin.
Now, I look back fondly on my dancing years. I remember how sweet and kind a teacher Miss Audrey was to be so forgiving of such a demanding and stubborn student. She was not only caring; she taught us all well. We might not have grown up to be prima ballerinas or even queens but we learned grace, glamour on a budget, that “the show must go on”, and to never stop having fun. Thank you, Miss Audrey.

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