Audobon dancers to be recognized

Published 7:34 pm Monday, April 2, 2007

Can you imagine being 222 years old? John James Audubon would be that age this month!

He was born in Haiti and later moved to the Loire Valley, near the French Atlantic coast. As a youth, he was interested in the sciences and music, and became an accomplished dancer. He was happiest wandering in the woods hunting, fishing, sketching wildlife and enjoying the company of pretty girls.

In 1803 his father sent him to America to avoid recruitment into Napoleon’s army. Young John James was very attracted to the new frontier. He married in Kentucky, had two sons, and making a living was difficult. He set off to float down the Mississippi River to sketch wildlife in the Natchez area. He eked out a living as a taxidermist, portrait painter, and dance teacher. His life certainly makes our modern lives seem rather dull.

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The Historic Natchez Pageant has acknowledged Audubon’s contributions to our city’s history since the beginning of the pageant in 1932. Ruthie and Jim Coy had a wonderful idea this year to bring attention to the tradition of families volunteering for decades to our city’s impressive history.

Martha Hootsell choreographed the original Audubon Ballet and danced the part of John James Audubon for several years before auditioning her students each year for the sought-after part. In the beginning of pilgrimage, the Pageant was held in Memorial Hall. I fondly remember Mrs. Hootsell telling me the story of her husband, Sessions, carrying her in his arms across the street so her satin ballet shoes wouldn’t get dirty. Audubon, the Dance Master was performed under the watchful tutelage of Martha Hootsell from 1934 to 1975. It was an honor to take over the school in 1976 for 15 happy years. (The name of the school changed during that time to Audubon School of Dance.)

Each year the color of the exquisite costumes was a very secretive process. Fabrics, trimmings, rhinestones and satin ballets arrived from New York. It was so very exciting! Rehearsals were always run smoothly with the support of our beloved Elsie Jackson backstage. Nita Nash was our gifted seamstress from the time I danced the lead in 1969 and 1970 until I danced again as an “older John James” at the ripe old age of 30. Mrs. Hootsell selected approximately 22 “lead Audubons” (one being her daughter Bahin) and I chose 20.

This Wednesday, April 4, the dancers of Audubon and the Royal Ballet will be recognized on stage at 7:30 p.m., before the Pageant. I had planned on not flying in from Washington, but the memories were much too precious to miss. I can close my eyes, hear the strains of the violins, hear the applause, and I literally feel my feet — 1-2-hop-step-close-step, coming down the steps onto the floor of the City Auditorium. Can’t you hear it too?

Please come celebrate. Dancers, let’s get together for tea at the Eola Lobby Wednesday afternoon at 5:30. If you can come, join me, let’s reminisce.

Cynthia Jones Cooper, owner, “Fitness First,” Personal Trainer, Teacher with the Washington Ballet, Pilates Instructor in Washington, D.C.