“Alright, show them to me, then,” announces Janet, the Ballet Mistress of the Moulin Rouge.
Anna, Christine, and I stand in the dimly lit backstage office of the famous cabaret and face the ballet mistress like prized cattle at an exhibition. It is early spring of 1999. I arrived in Paris only days before. Six new dancers were selected after worldwide auditions. I feel privileged and excited to be one.
The Moulin Rouge stands proudly on Place Blanche in the illustrious red light district of Paris. Strip clubs blare and blaze to its east and west. Disreputable gentlemen line the entrances of the clubs and lure unsuspecting tourists into their caverns. Pubs, cafés, bars, and a supermarket nestle between. By day, the quartier bustles with city workers, shoppers, and families. By night, animated neon lights gleam, cars honk noisily, and the glittering spokes of the large red windmill turn. Every night.
We line up by size. Anna is to my right. Christine is to my left. Less than an inch separates us. We wear identical black leotards, flesh fishnets, and crystal-decorated three-inch heels. We stand in Showgirl stance. Chins high, shoulders back, hips forward, knees cocked, and feet bevelled. The first cancan rehearsal finished twenty minutes ago. Anna, Christine and I are now selected as potential Nudes for the show.
The Nudes are the highest-ranking dancers in the chorus line. Nudes wear the prettiest costumes, dance the best numbers and perform the only solos. Nudes are also topless. Janet wants to see our breasts. Then she will decide who receives the esteemed position.
I glimpse towards Christine, then Anna. Both girls stare at the red velvet wall high above Janet’s dishevelled bob.
I peek at Janet. She stands straight. Hands on hips, feet spread wide like an army general. She wears tracksuit pants and a sloppy grey t-shirt. A fanny bag hugs her waist. Cigarettes protrude from the open zip.
“Here?” I ask politely.
“I haven’t got all bloody day,” she spits in her Yorkshire accent.
A long, thin cigarette hangs expertly from the side of her mouth. Her top lip puckers. Fine lines run towards her cigarette like small creeks. Grey smoke fills the room. My lungs feel heavy.
Janet takes a long drag.
I am unsure what to do. “Do I just take my top off?” I inquire.
I don’t remember how I got myself into this. I am a trained classical dancer. I auditioned for the show on the advice of my friend Cathy, a former dancer. A career in classical ballet is notoriously difficult to break into. Besides, I am too tall for ballet. I am showgirl height.
“You will love it,” Cathy had said. “Try and get into The Nudes. You won’t even notice being topless. Trust me, this is the position you want in the show.”
Until now, rehearsal consisted of fully clad high kicks.
“That’s what you’re here for, ain’t it?” Janet snaps.
“Okay,” I whisper.
I swallow. I lift my hands to the straps of my leotard. I focus on a painting of Toulouse Lautrec behind Janet’s desk. I push my thumbs under the straps. I lift the straps from my shoulders. I edge my leotard down over my breasts and shimmy the fabric down to my waist. I return my hands to my hips. I push my shoulders back and lift my gaze. I stare straight at the red velvet wall above Janet’s head.
Christine and Anna follow.
Janet is silent. She scans us slowly. She examines our height, our legs, and our faces. She examines our breasts. I know mine are too small. I know Anna dances better than me. I know Christine is prettier than me.
Janet leans in. Her head is inches from mine. Her hands are fixed to her hips. Her cigarette sticks to her lip. She sucks hard on the short stub. Soft grey clouds billow from her nostrils. She plucks the stub from her lips and extinguishes it in the overflowing ashtray on her desk.
“Alright then, you can get dressed,” Janet mutters. She pulls another cigarette from her fanny bag.
We scoop our breasts into our leotards and stand straight.
“Christine, Emily. You will start in The Nude Line,” Janet announces. “I will measure you. Then you will sign the contract.”
My eyes open wide. I look at Christine. She looks wide-eyed at me. I look at Anna. She looks at her toes.
Janet measures the circumference of our heads, necks, chests, waists, hips, thighs, wrists, and ankles. She even measures our knees. She records her findings on two papers.
“Are these for our costumes?” I whisper to Christine.
“I guess,” she shrugs.
“Right, now let’s weigh you both,” Janet orders.
I mount the scale. Janet records the number. Christine follows.
“Right, here are your contracts.” Janet hands us each our paper.
I stare at the numbers on the page. Precise details of each inch of me stare back. I feel exposed.
“Read this carefully,” she says. “This is your profile. It cannot change.”
We sign beside each measurement. We promise to stay the same weight. We promise to stay the same shape. We promise not to change the colour of our hair. Failure to adhere means we go home. Rumour says a girl was fired because the owner didn’t like her legs. We will work six nights per week, two shows per night, one day to rest.
Janet collects our contracts and we return to rehearsal.
I perform in The Nude line for the next five years.