Audrey Hepburn’s First Career Choice Was Derailed Because of German Invasion

Long before Audrey Hepburn realized her dream of being an actor, she danced ballet. She was a skilled and dedicated dancer who likely could have made it far. However, after living through the Second World War, Hepburn’s plans were derailed. A combination of malnutrition and limited training opportunities during the war forced Hepburn to shift her career focus. 

Audrey Hepburn wears a tiara and a dress.
Audrey Hepburn | Mondadori via Getty Images

Audrey Hepburn used her dance skills to help the Dutch Resistance

Hepburn began dancing from a young age, first at school in London, then in the Netherlands. She was a skilled dancer, though her training was interrupted in 1940 when German forces invaded the Netherlands. 

During the German occupation, Hepburn put her dancing skills to work. Due to her prominence as a dancer in the city of Arnhem, Dutch Resistance leader Dr. Hendrik Visser ’t Hooft recruited her for illegal, invite-only performances. Initially, the goal of these so-called “black evenings” was to help musicians impacted by the takeover of the Nazi union of artists. Soon though, the performances began raising money to help those sheltering people in hiding across the Netherlands.

“I danced at recitals, designing the dances myself. I had a friend who played the piano and my mother made the costumes,” she said, per Time Magazine. “They were very amateurish attempts, but nevertheless at the time, when there was very little entertainment, it amused people and gave them an opportunity to get together and spend a pleasant afternoon listening to music and seeing my humble attempts. The recitals were given in houses with windows and doors closed, and no one knew they were going on. Afterwards, money was collected and given to the Dutch Underground.” 

Living through World War II impacted her hopes of being a ballet dancer

After the war, Hepburn hoped to continue pursuing her dream of becoming a ballerina. She danced under leading figures in Dutch ballet and eventually moved to London on a dance scholarship in 1948. Soon, though, she realized that the effects of the war were blocking her hopes of a dance career.

In the wartime years, Hepburn was extremely malnourished, which would impact her health for years to come.

“She suffered from asthma, jaundice and other illnesses caused by malnutrition,” her son Luca Dotti said, per People, “including acute anemia and a serious form of edema which Mum explained like this: ‘It begins with your feet and when it reaches your heart, you die. With me, it was above the ankles when I was liberated.’”

In addition, while she danced during the war, she did not undergo the rigorous training required to make it as a dancer. This became apparent when she arrived at London’s Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Marie Rambert herself broke the news that Hepburn didn’t have what it would take.

“I didn’t have anywhere near the technique that other girls my age had,” Hepburn explained, per the Financial Times.

Though she would continue to dance for several years after this, her focus shifted to acting.

Audrey Hepburn’s dance training was on display in ‘Funny Face’

Hepburn maintained the poise and grace she picked up as a ballet dancer. She put her dance skills on full display in Funny Face. Despite her training, Hepburn was nervous about dancing alongside co-star Fred Astaire, though he helped her relax into the role.

“Fred literally swept me off my feet,” she said, per the Huffington Post.

She specifically requested that Astaire play the romantic interest in the role as she was excited to dance with him. In one scene, though, the rainy Paris weather made the ground soggy, and the two performers kept getting their feet stuck in the mud.

“Here I’ve been waiting 20 years to dance with Fred Astaire, and what do I get?” she said. “Mud!”

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