by Janet Howson
I run, breathless and terrified through the deserted alleyways and streets. The darkness cloaks me, only relieved by a weak moon and the occasional threatening flashes as bombs are dropped hopefully a long way off. The dark shapes of the Soho buildings all seem the same as I pick my way towards the theatre. I clutch my bag tighter to my side, scared that I may drop it in my haste, losing my costume and stiletto heeled silver shoes. I will need to change as soon as I arrive. No time for a chat and a catch up with the rest of the girls.
The theatre’s sign isn’t lit up. I can make out the shape of the Windmill though. The blackout cannot completely obscure that. I rush in through the stage door. There is already a long queue at the box office entrance of soldiers and civilians, jostling, laughing aiming to be the first ones in to get as near to the stage and the girls as possible. I run to the changing room. It is packed with girls putting on their costumes and make-up, some as young as sixteen, all excited and bubbling with gossip. The atmosphere is electric. It draws me in to its warmth. An escape from the harsh realities of the war, a refuge. I get myself ready, folding the clothes I arrived in neatly and pushing them into my bag. I put my silver skimpy costume on, my headdress of feathers and my matching shoes.
“Beginners on stage, ” shouts young Jack through the door. He isn’t allowed in but always opens the door as far as he can to see the girls in their finery not to mention undress. He’ll get caught one day by the stage manager, then he’ll be in for it.
I am not one of ‘The Statues’. These are the girls who sit, naked and do not move. They are not good time girls, just artistes. I was a dancer though. It’s all I ever wanted to be from the first time I went to the theatre and saw the chorus girls kicking their legs high. They all move out of the dressing room, still chatting. Soon I hear the roar of the crowd. There will be the usual surge to the front as some of the young men try and get closer to the stage. The music is playing, the audience are cheering.
“Dancers on stage.” Jack again. That is me. I take a deep breath.
“You all right, Elsie?” It is my friend, Joan. “We ain’t had chance to catch up this evening. Saw you rushing in late as usual.”
“See you afterwards Joan,” I whisper, aware of how near I was to the stage. “Here we go.”
I love that first entrance. The bright lights block out the faces of the audience. The music, the colour the whole atmosphere, I am at home on a stage, it is all I want and need.
We line up. The intro music begins. We move like clockwork. Perfect timing. Precise footwork. No room for errors. We flow, we turn, we kick. The sound of our heels can be heard even above the music. We all have fixed smiles on our faces. It doesn’t matter how tired we are after a day’s work. How uncomfortable our shoes are, how heavy our headdresses are, we must keep on smiling. We must lift these young soldier’s spirits. Let them forget about the war that they have been called up for, tomorrow, or in two days, or a week away; they will all be going.
The music shakes the building and I dance and dance. I am almost in a trance. I will never tire of dancing, at performing at the Windmill Theatre. I silently thank Mrs Henderson and Mr Van Damm for keeping this wonderful venue open, because when it comes to cheering people up and allowing them to escape from reality for a short time, well, there is no business like show business.
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