That night was the big performance; the first time I saw her. We were performing against another local exotic dance group. We had the home advantage. It wasn't really a competition; we performed for the catcalls, wolf whistles and crude remarks of the audience. If the visitors were more popular they got a percentage of the ticket sales, if not they didn’t.
Competitions did wonders for a company’s reputation and sales. Not that the benefits trickled down to the performers who depended solely on the company’s directors. Being a dancer wasn't as bad as it sounds, but it wasn't freedom either. More like indentured servants than employees we were given what we needed, a little extra spending cash, in return for our services. Most of us didn't know any different.
The hours of rehearsal put in that week had the desired result. As the opening number came to a close we each hit our poses in quick succession. This consequently created an undulation of movement that mirrored the repetitive music increasing in volume. Each dancer entwined her limbs through the cage’s bars on her count. The perfect timing caused a pleasing ripple effect.
On the count of six Sue kicked her thin right leg up. The heel of her unbelievably small foot resting on the second to highest horizontal bar just as the count of seven initiated my cue. In one swift movement I assumed my pose. Arms reached far above my head and their muscles became visibly taut as I hoisted my legs through the slightly elevated bars.
When Laura began on the count of eight I was suspended in a crouching position a foot or so from the stage. I supported myself with my arms and thighs while Laura lifted her left leg above her head in a vertical split. She gripped the bars in front of her pressing small breasts against them. With the music ending we dismounted sultrily as instructed.
This other group was wearing silver costumes; a bit extravagant, like old pictures of Vegas showgirls. While the visiting dancers performed their initial routine we hurried off stage to change our costumes. Not a normal practice but tonight was special.
I hadn’t remembered the change in program. Laura jabbed a finger into my ribs spurring me to follow Sue off stage. I hoped one of the directors hadn’t noticed. Our dressing was furtive and silent. I let myself relax as I assumed my position behind the cage again. No one seemed to notice my mistake.
During our prima contortionist’s routine I occupied my idle brain looking at the refreshing new faces. The gaudily dressed dancers across from me were homogenous in height. Many companies exclusively recruited girls of similar heights for their chorus. Ours wasn’t so picky; they only restricted chorus involvement if you were far above the average height. This company had gone a step further having them each bleach their hair a nearly white blonde.
The dancer on the far right was obviously uncomfortable. She wiggled awkwardly trying to loose an abrasive sequin from its lodging within the irritated skin adjacent to her underarm. Eventually the discomfort became too great and she briefly relinquished her pose to readjust her straps and bustier. If that happened in our troupe we’d be rewarded with three minutes of squatting against a wall with arms straight above your head the following rehearsal.
Tonight’s finale was completely different being performed cooperatively with the visiting group. I wasn’t paying much attention to the audience but if I had to guess I would say that our company was ‘winning’ the competition. Too me it really didn’t matter.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other protruding my hip, eyes not really focusing on anything. The spotlight shifted blinding my eyes. I readjusted my gaze towards the rival dancers. That’s when I noticed a dancer, surprisingly taller than the rest, staring at me while I posed against the cage.
At the time it didn’t don on me how calculating her unrelenting gaze was. Yet I still could feel the self conscious pressure of being stared at throughout the entire acrobatic performance. I watched her from the corner of my eye, the two of us in this reserved deadlock, until we both had to move for the finale.
Now that I think of it the woman was far too old to be a dancer and uncharacteristically tall. Perhaps it was the heat of the competition between the rival groups that caused her malicious gaze but I would later learn that she wasn't a dancer at all.
I watched her after the finale as she left the stage and approached a man in the front row. His seats were traditionally occupied by middle class patrons. They have enough money to buy good seats but aren't important enough that they need to be discreet about their presence in the dark district. The two matched in demeanor exchanging the brief phrases of conversation that were characteristic of business dealings.
I noticed a man in a dark suit clearly listening in on their conversation. He must have thought he was being real cunning pretending not to notice the extravagant un-caged dancer while leaning in her direction. Surprisingly no one else seemed to notice the tall woman. They were too dazzled by the small fireworks, glaring lights and loud music. Even without performers the senses were overloaded.
That night I lingered after finishing the show. My observations of the strange woman had prevented my usual speedy get away. When I returned I didn’t even try to get into the bathroom for a shower, just washed my face and lay on my bed.
Enjoying the fresh feeling of washing the awful makeup from my face, I let my mind go blank. With nothing of consequence to consider my eyes roamed searching for meaning throughout the meager furnishings of the room. One of those flowers had fallen from its perch above my door.
Removing myself from bed with an inward groan I stepped on the slinky new costume deposited on the floor. The sparkles felt rough against my bare feet and I knew I had glitter sticking to my sol. If one of the directors caught me treating it like that I’d get a severe upbraiding.
I scooped up the flower and pulled the chair from my closet. It remained sequestered in the dark space for just such occasions. There being no room for it elsewhere on a permanent basis. I still had to stretch atop the chair to reach.
I pressed the paper flower against the wall applying pressure for ten seconds before releasing the artifact to the strength of its adhesive. It held out for a few seconds before plummeting back to the floor. Sometimes I really hated my life.
When I felt so empty and was afraid to go to sleep because then I'd have wasted a day without accomplishing anything. Days when nothing seemed to resolve. Days when insignificance seemed inevitable. I preferred days when we learnt new routines or cleaned the complex. Then I felt accomplished or at least worth something.
That’s what I felt that night, empty.