From Paris to Cullman: meet Brooke and Vincent Desnoës

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Brooke and Vincent Desnoës (Courtesy of Sidonie Desnoës)

CULLMAN, Ala.– After many years in Paris, France, Vincent and Brooke Desnoës decided the time had come for a move to her hometown of Cullman. A 1986 graduate of Cullman High School, Brooke brought with her countless years of experience and international accomplishments from the art of ballet.

She danced mostly in Birmingham during her school years.

“I went to college and danced with the Alabama Ballet and the Gainesville Ballet. Then I went off to Scottish Ballet,” she explained. “Afterwards I met my husband, who is French, and we just stayed in Europe.”

The couple decided to leave Europe, moving back to the United States in 2018.

Things were changing in Europe and we were just ready for a change,” she said.

Brooke had a job offer from the Wichita Ballet to help develop its company from the regional to the national level. She was prepared to become its artistic director but had a few second thoughts.

She said, “I realized from visiting the community that it was a lot like Cullman. I just thought it was a bit of a shame to put so much work into a community that I didn’t really have any ties to. They were super nice in Wichita but I got to thinking. I contacted Wallace (State Community College) and asked if they had ever thought of doing an advanced program, and they had. The second part of that would be opening a school in town to foster. Wallace would be the pre-professional section for kids, and the school here to get kids ready for the pre-professional program or to get kids ready to go straight into company life or summer programs.”

Brooke recalled growing up in Cullman and the obstacles she had to entering the dance world. She said she has nurtured many relationships within the dance community and can now help other young dancers make connections to more opportunities.

“Very often you need a contact. Making that jump into the professional world was difficult and I thought it would be really nice to help spread the good news of dance and help those kids that are really talented make that connection,” she said.

The dance industry has grown tremendously over the past few years with many more opportunities.

Brooke said, “When I was growing up, becoming a dancer was the only job opportunity that dance could give you. Now, it’s teaching at every level, right up to the university level; it’s writing, because there are so many dance magazines now and dance books. It’s costume design, set design, outreach, because you have dance programs going into elementary schools, going into community centers. It’s also health, because you’ve got dance fitness classes and dance medicine classes. You can go in many, many, many different areas with dance.”

Brooke has also observed more dance companies forming as the audience has also grown.

She stressed, “Ballet is the base. Your Broadway dancers will have done a ballet class in the morning before they put on their character shoes and go on Broadway Your modern dancers will have done ballet class in the morning before they do contemporary dance. I had a good friend who was the director of the leading contemporary dance in New York. His dancers started at class every day at 10 a.m. with ballet. Ballet is the base, and if you have the strong base, you can go any way. Even gymnastics, a strong ballet base will help them.”

She laughed, “In Paris, the rugby team even sent their sons to us. With that strong kind of coordination base, they knew they were going to be better rugby players. So we didn’t have just dancers. It can help everyone.”

The Brooke Desnoës Ballet Academy offers both group classes and individual coaching. She believes that learning is about having fun even in a disciplined environment.

She promised, “The old-fashioned images standing at the bar with the teacher with a stick and no one smiling, those days are gone. I’m a big believer that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Brooke compares her approach to teaching dance to the Montessori approach in education. explaining, “If you layer it thin enough so that every day they have gotten better… ‘Every day I have done this, and look what I can do now!’… It’s just a different way of looking at it. Instead of ‘This is so hard and I’m going to have to work so hard,’ let’s give it in thin layers and make it easy so they want to do better and better and do more.”

Brooke met Vincent, who is French, in Maine after her senior year of college. He was teaching photography and she was teaching dance at an international summer camp for teenagers. They chose to go back to Europe, where they lived for 25 years. According to Brooke, Vincent was the more enthusiastic one about the move to Cullman.

Brooke was the founder and artistic director at the Academie Americaine de Danse de Paris, the largest private school in Europe with more than 900 students.

She said, “We had a children’s program, an adolescent program and pre-professional program. We were producing about 10 dancers a year who would either go straight into company or into universities, many of them on scholarship.”

Vincent was born in France and had traveled throughout Europe extensively. After meeting Brooke, he said they moved to England and then to Paris. They moved to Washington, D.C. while he earned his Master of Arts in Literature at George Mason University. He also worked as a photographer for the university.

He was a photographer for the French Army when he was doing his national service in Germany.

He said, “What I had to develop was the artistic side over the years. It takes a lifetime.”

He was a photographer in East Germany before the wall came down.

“I always said when I left the eastern side that it would never change. I think it was two years later everything changed. The wall came down and the USSR was dismantled and we looked at the world in a different way,” said Vincent.

After a few years in England they moved back to Paris.

He said, “It made sense to go back to Paris. I was French so we moved. I wanted to go back to school so we went to Washington. She taught for the Washington School of Ballet and did some great work there. Me, I took the master’s in literature which helped me with my photography because the more you know about culture, the better it is. Being a photographer is just being like a writer except you use images.”

Vincent was the Paris correspondent for Wine Australia and Gourmet Australia.

“So anything to do with French food for the Australian magazine, that was me. It was fun- a lot of good meals, a good time with Brooke. She doesn’t regret any of that,” he laughed.

He did that for many years while teaching part-time. Brooke’s school in Paris grew quickly and he joined her team working in publication.

He said, “I was a photographer for her, but sometimes I was doing other work, especially in the music world and always the dance world. I was a photographer, but my main job was working with Brooke for Brooke when she had that huge school over in Paris.”

Vincent and Brooke have two daughters. Eglantine, 16, and Sidonie, 14, both attend Cullman High School. Their parents preferred to see them educated in the United States, which they say was a main factor in their decision to move to Cullman.

Vincent described his girls as “brilliant.”

The family had visited Alabama throughout the years. Vincent and Brooke were married at Sacred Heart in 1993 and in Paris in 1992.

He said, “I married Brooke at the Catholic church in town. We would come every summer. Brooke was still attached to the town. She never thought because she moved to Paris that somehow, she had forgotten her links to the South in Alabama. She’s quite proud of it, actually. When the kids became older, we always came back here. We always made sure they spent time with the grandmother and grandfather. We never felt completely disconnected from the South.”

When asked about any troubles the family had in transitioning to Alabama, Vincent said, “They NEVER indicate when they turn! it drives me crazy. They turn left, they go right.”

Vincent had a photography studio in Paris and is starting over here now. His studio is in the rear of the ballet school.

“I can do portrait, corporate, artistic. I can do anything. I’ve been doing it for 30-something years. You have to be flexible. If you ask me what I like to do, it’s portrait, but not always the kind of portrait people will like. You have to be commercial on one side and a little more truthful with what you like.”

Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Robert Frank and Annie Leibovitz are among the photographers Vincent calls his “big heroes.”

He laughed, “I always try to look at the best ones. I don’t try to copy anyone but the best ones.”

He added, “It’s a passion.”

He is very proud of Brooke, smiling, “What Brooke is doing as a dancer and as a teacher is opening the mind.”

Both Vincent and Brooke are teaching at Wallace State Community College. Brooke is teaching ballet while Vincent will be teaching a DSLR photography course for Workforce Training Solutions. 

The Brooke Desnoës Ballet Academy is located at 306 First Ave. SE in Cullman. The Academy is now accepting students, from children through high school ages. Reach the Academy at 256-338-6401.

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Christy Perry

christy@cullmantribune.com