Long before she became an Oscar-winning actress, Audrey Hepburn “…dreamed of only one thing: To be a dancer.” Audrey began her dance training at the age of five while attending boarding school in England. Little Audrey fell in love with ballet and was eager to attend each weekly class.
By the age of ten, Audrey moved from her English boarding school back to her family’s home in Holland where her mother, Ella enrolled her in the Arnhem Conservatory of Music and Dance. It was here that Audrey’s unique blend of artistry began to take shape under the experienced eye of her teacher, Winja Marova. “She was long, slender, very sweet, very eager to learn,” Winja said of Audrey. “She was willing to give everything for it. She was very musical. I always enjoyed teaching her…When she was on stage, even though she just knew a little bit, you immediately saw that a flame lit the audience.” Their respect and admiration was mutual. Of her teacher, Miss Hepburn is quoted as saying, “Winja was a beautiful, world-class dancer. (And she) helped this very young girl in Arnhem to believe that she could become one, too.”
Audrey’s talent was also readily apparent to others. She began receiving several glowing reviews for both performances and recitals. One particular review read: “As all of them are just at the start of their dance development, we do not want to mention any names except for Audrey Hepburn who, in spite of the age of only twelve, was noticed because of her very individual personality and performance. She danced the ‘Serenade’ of Moszkowski with her own choreography.”
Young Audrey was enchanted by the famous Margot Fonteyn, and had the opportunity of a lifetime to watch her idol dance on stage in May of 1940. This night to remember was made even more special when Audrey’s mother had a special taffeta dress fashioned for her daughter. “The reason she got me this, at great expense – we couldn’t afford this kind of thing –was that I was to present a bouquet of flowers at the end of the performance to Ninette de Valois, the director of the company.”
“I remember walking onto the bright stage, with the pretty ballerinas and their costumes. It was my first late night.”
However, things were not all sunshine and roses for Audrey and her family. Due to the growing hostilities inflicted by Hitler and the German army, the Arnhem Conservatory began putting on performances to help raise money to support the Dutch underground. Audrey also performed in secret “black out” performances in private homes with the windows locked and the blinds drawn. Her friend would play the piano, Audrey’s mother made costumes from old curtains, and Audrey happily entertained the audience with her own choreography. Instead of applause, the audience would offer “silent curtain calls” and pass around a hat. “The money we made helped saboteurs in their work against the Nazis.” The young dancer considered it a privilege to be able to use her training to contribute to a greater good.
However, the Nazi’s were not apt to take any form of resistance lightly. Therefore in 1944, the Nazi’s retaliated against the Dutch by abruptly halting the import of food into Holland. The residents, including Audrey and her family, did what they could to survive by eating nettles and grass, or baking bread made from flower bulbs or peas. Yet even their best efforts did little to battle the effects of starvation. “During the last winter of the war, we had no food whatsoever,” Audrey said. “I finished the war highly anemic, and asthmatic, and all the things that come with malnutrition.” She even developed a horrible case of edema, which caused her limbs to swell so badly that she had to greatly limit her dancing.
As the war continued to escalate, the Germans began forcing thousands of people from their homes. Audrey’s family continued to do what they could to help, often housing up to forty refugees at a time despite the fact that there was nothing to eat. Audrey herself offered free dance lessons to the girls in order to take their minds off their troubles.
Holland was liberated in 1945, and soon thereafter, Audrey and her mother would move to Amsterdam. Fiercely determined to continue her dance education, Audrey was referred to and subsequently accepted by Sonia Gaskell, a “premiere dance teacher who specialized in avant-garde choreography, modern and jazz dance.” For the next three years, Audrey studied under Sonia, determined not only become a top ballerina, but a great choreographer as well.
Her dedication soon led to an audition to Marie Rambert’s London ballet school, where she was accepted on scholarship with one condition; she had to pay her own living expenses. This was extremely disappointing news, as Audrey and her mother had no savings and were barely making it as it was. Other ballet schools’ tuition included room and board, including Sonia Gaskell’s. However, Audrey had overcome too much adversity to turn back now. The eighteen year old decided to seek whatever work she could find in order to cover her living expenses; a decision which paved the way to her future film career.
Audrey was cast as a KLM stewardess in a travelogue called “Dutch in Seven Lessons”, which then led to a variety of part-time modeling jobs. Audrey earned additional income by restyling ordinary hats to look like expensive designer ones, and then selling them to beauty shop clients.
By 1948, Audrey and her mother had earned enough to make the move to England. The world of classical ballet—a world Audrey had longed for and dreamed about for so long–was at last open to her. However her dream world came with a harsh dose of reality. Her classes highlighted her shaky technique which had suffered during the years of the war. But what troubled Audrey most was her height. At 5’ 7”, she towered over both her male and female dancing peers. “I was an Amazon, towering over the boys,” she once said. Yet Audrey did what she could to make the most of her statuesque physique. “Instead of working on allegro – little small tight movements—I took extra courses in adagio, so I could use my long lines to advantage.” Her efforts paid off as one reviewer commented three years later, “A girl with her potential star value can be as tall as a giraffe and still get by.”
But Audrey didn’t want to just “get by”; she wanted to be a prima ballerina. She finally decided to ask Marie Rambert about her potential as a ballerina, and her response was devastating. “It was because of her height that I couldn’t consider her for my own company. Even in classes it was always a struggle to find partners who were tall enough for her.”
Once again down but by no means out, Audrey did what she did best; continued to put one foot in front of the other. She began auditioning for cabaret night club acts in London, and was quickly cast as a chorus girl in High Button Shoes. The show ran for 291 performances and gave Audrey her first taste of the professional dance world. “I loved being in a musical show. I needed music in my life very badly. I loved sharing a dressing room with other girls. That brought me back to normal. From a young age, I was very aware of suffering and fear. For the first time, I felt the pure joy of living.”
She was then cast in Sauce Tartare, a show that opened in May of 1949 and ran for an impressive 437 performances. During that time, Audrey continued to take movement and separate barre classes, as well as diction courses. She also continued her modeling. These efforts, which may have seemed unnecessary to the casual observer, would prove instrumental in furthering Audrey’s blossoming career.
Audrey continued to land several small-time roles both on stage and in films, all providing her with further exposure and experience. In 1950, director Thorold Dickinson began casting for his new movie, “Secret People”.
Dickinson remembered seeing Audrey in Sauce Tartare and after her screen test, cast her in the role of Nora. Although the film received very little favor from critics, Audrey herself earned praise from both Variety and Sunday Graphic.
Ms. Hepburn next film, “Monte Carlo Baby”, proved to be a case of “being in the right place at the right time.” While Monte Carlo Baby bombed with critics and audiences, Audrey’s performance in her small role was the clear exception. She was cast as the title character in the Broadway adaptation of Colette’s novel, “Gigi”.
A series of starring roles followed, each building the young starlet’s successful portfolio; 1953’s “Roman Holiday” was a smashing success and earned her an Academy Award; “Sabrina” which became the number three top grossing film of 1954, and Tolstoy’s “War & Peace” which provided Audrey with a glowing review from Variety magazine which said in part, “(Audrey Hepburn is) the epitome of wholesome young love under benevolent aristocratic rearing.”
“Funny Face” with Fred Astaire proved to be Hepburn’s next big break, which began filming in 1956. Astaire had been one of Hepburn’s childhood icons and the day she met him, Audrey was petrified. “One look at this most debonair, elegant, and distinguished of legends and I could feel myself turn into solid lead, while my heart sank into my two left feet.” Fred immediately erased all her fears when he swept her off her feet. Literally. “Suddenly I felt a hand around my waist, and with his inimitable grace and lightness, Fred literally swept me off my feet. I experienced the thrill that all women at some point in their lives have dreamed of – to dance just once with Fred Astaire.”
“Funny Face” was a great success, with the New York Times declaring, “It is reasonable to reckon that you won’t see a prettier musical film –or one more extraordinarily stylish – during the balance of this year. Miss Hepburn has the meek charm of a wallflower turned into a rueful butterfly.”
But for all the acclaim Funny Face received, it paled in stark comparison to Hepburn’s next film. In 1961, Audrey Hepburn went from rising star to Hollywood icon with the release of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Her role as Holly Golightly –with her signature long black dress, oversized sunglasses, opera gloves and long cigarette – became the defining character of her career. The New York Times stated that, “Above all, it has the overpowering attribute known as Audrey Hepburn, who, despite her normal startled fawn exterior, now is displaying a fey, comic talent…In the person of Miss Hepburn, (Holly) is a genuinely charming, elfin waif who will be believed and adored when seen.” Variety also sang the praises of Hepburn’s Golightly as “a charming, wild and amoral “free spirit” with a latent romantic streak. In the exciting person of Audrey Hepburn, she comes vividly to life on the screen.”
In 1964, Hepburn starred in “My Fair Lady” alongside Rex Harrison, who would later describe Audrey as his “favorite leading lady of all time.” With her position secured in the hearts of both critics and audiences alike, Audrey managed to shed some of her lingering childhood fear and embraced her unique talents with open arms.
Audrey Hepburn would go on to play several successful roles, both on and off-screen. She felt privileged to work with such names as Cary Grant, Shirley MacLaine, Rex Harrison, James Garner, and Alan Arkin to name but a few. She was an honored recipient of Academy, Tony and Grammy Awards, and was named #3 on The American Film Institute’s 50 Greatest Screen Legends. Yet her greatest triumph in life was that of mothering her two sons, Sean and Luca. Her children were her life’s greatest achievement, and she relished her role as mother more than any other.
From her humble beginnings in Holland, to her humanitarian efforts as a UNICEF ambassador, Audrey Hepburn was more than a cultural icon. She is a role model for dancers everywhere to embrace hard work, live life to the fullest, and strive to turn adversity into triumph. She was the voice for those who have no voice, and did what she could to ease another’s burden. We would all be wise to embrace Hepburn’s legacy which is summed up in the following quote: “I feel so strongly that’s where it all starts, with kindness. What a different world this could be if everyone lived by that.”
*Bibliography: The Audrey Hepburn Treasures, by Ellen Erwin & Jessica Diamond