Cindy Melby Phaneuf was born and raised along with her twin brother, Bruce, in Omaha’s Dundee neighborhood. Her parents, Van and June Melby, were both first generation citizens of the United States. Van was born into a long line of butter-makers from Denmark. The strong presence of Roberts Dairy in the Midwest had attracted his family to Nebraska. June was one of six children born to a family of Danish farmers who too had found the rich soil of the Great Plains alluring. Van was a union plumber with a dancing hobby and June was a housewife and community volunteer before becoming an executive secretary at Boys Town once her two children left for college.
Cindy grew up wanting to be a dancer, an interest that she traces all the way back to second grade. Anyone who is acquainted with Cindy might find it hard to believe that she was a shy little girl at one point. Her teacher, Ms. Lori Conrey, suggested a local dance studio to June, hoping it would help Cindy overcome her anxiety. Two months later, Cindy was tap-dancing her way into the school talent show, where her career as a performer really began. “My mom made me this little red quilted circle skirt [to perform in] with a squirrel with sparkles on it and I thought it was the best thing ever” (Interview 2013). Indeed, Van and June were supportive of their daughter’s artistic lifestyle from day one.
Although she would eventually become co-founder of the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, Cindy didn’t discover her passion for the theatre until high school. Interestingly enough, the first play she ever acted in was The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s most controversial comedies. The skilled directorial execution of Ms. Peg Shaffer fascinated Cindy, tempting her into auditioning for one play after another until graduation. “I didn’t want to leave rehearsal,” she recalls (Interview 2013). Despite beginning her adventures as a thespian with The Taming of the Shrew, Cindy was not yet infatuated with Shakespeare, perhaps owing to the play’s misogynistic nature. She felt more at ease acting in relatively recent productions, especially musicals, where her years of dance instruction gave her a distinct advantage over her fellow students.
Memories of Ms. Conrey’s kindness and dedication in elementary school motivated Cindy to become a teacher herself. She wanted to help younger people discover their talents just as Ms. Conrey had done for her. Near the end of high school, she was convinced that she wanted to teach second grade until a friend advised her to teach what she loved. Cindy took this advice to heart and left Omaha for Texas Christian University (TCU), where she studied modern dance and ballet.
However, her newfound interest in theatre was not to be ignored. Cindy still auditioned for productions at TCU and found herself engrossed in the teachings of Dr. George Sorensen who taught there. “I was entranced by him. I took every class that I could, took any part in any play he directed” (Interview 2013). Cindy recalls staying through entire rehearsals,