I walked into the long dressing room above the stage. All was colour and sparkle. Lightbulbs glowed around mirrors, glitter eyeshadow spilled across tables, sequinned bras hung from the backs of chairs. Half dressed, but full to the brim with uncontrollable excitement and fear, my girls primped and preened and yelped with laughter.
They turned and looked at me. And all talked at once. None of them had ever done anything like this before. The lightbulbs! The mirrors! The costumes! “Look Charlotte! Look! Look!!” I looked. And saw a room of excited women about to embark on something most people are truly terrified of - public performance. But more than that, what I saw was a room full of women who were comfortable in their own skins.
Someone had brought along a bottle of vodka, someone else a phial of Bach Flower Rescue Remedy. And so, between them, they came up with what I still think is the perfect cocktail for pre-show nerves - Vodka and Rescue Remedy!
I had my own fears but mine were different from theirs. I knew we hadn’t managed to sell many tickets. We had lots of promises but little hard cash. I wasn’t worried about the money - the small Women’s Institute Hall hadn’t cost that much to hire. But I was worried about the atmosphere in the hall and, most of all, the disappointment for the girls if, after months of hard work, they came out on stage to find themselves performing to only a few people.
Two weeks earlier I had sat in the hall all alone and imagined rows and rows of seats facing the stage. In my imagination I saw twenty people huddled in coats. Sitting, chilly and miserable in the two front rows as my girls desperately tried to entertain them with their shimmies and eights and hip drops.
So I had determined to do something about the atmosphere at least. I decided to set the room out with round tables, cabaret-style, reasoning that it would make the hall seem fuller and the audience more relaxed. I bought candles and nuts and olives, Lea and Heather talked their husbands into running a bar.
The day before the show I had arrived in the hall to find a small group of my girls hard at work, carrying swathes of chiffon to make drapes for the back stage wall. An elderly man I’d never seen before was painting a beautiful oriental-shaped window looking out onto stars and minarets. “Who’s he?” I asked. “We don’t know! We just found him here and Shelley flirted with him like mad until he offered to paint some scenery for us.”
On the day of the show itself we rehearsed on stage until the last minute. Paul worked the sound, my nephew Alasdair the lighting. The bar was being prepared, the tables set. At 7pm I lit the candles, gave Paul and Alasdair a hug, then said an urgent internal prayer, before climbing the rickety stairs up to the dressing room.
And now we were close to the moment for me to go down to the stage and confront my own fears. Like many people I have a fear of failure. It’s mostly a fear of being shown up as a fool for thinking I can do something. And, like most people I also have an internal critic. Mine sits on my right shoulder and spends a lot of time pointing out my many shortcomings. That critic knows that one of my greatest fears is of publicly being seen to fail. It never ever actually stops me from doing anything, but whenever I push myself, I know that fear and doubt will be my constant companions.
The girls were excitedly buzzing around, squeezing into costumes, sharing makeup, posing for photographs, sneaking another Vodka snifter. Thrilled to be there, telling me how wonderful everything was. But inside my head I was as low as I could possibly be. Knowing that no-one was going to turn up. Wondering what on earth I was doing trying to put on a show with fifteen women who had never been on stage before and who had been bellydancing for less than a year. Knowing that I really wasn’t up to the job and never had been.
And then the sound of feet running up the stairs, a frantic knocking on the door. Paul’s voice. “Can I come in?” A quick look round, everyone decent? I opened the door.
Paul burst into the room. “The hall’s full! We’re having to pass chairs over heads and tell people just to find anywhere they can to sit! You’re meant to be on in five minutes and they’re still queuing down the High Street! You’ve got a hit on your hands girls!!”
The excitement rose several notches. And as my fear abated, theirs lifted. “Oh my God, we’re going to go out on stage in front of hundreds of people!!”
I turned round to them, told them they were wonderful. They were my girls and they were gorgeous. Everyone would love them, they were going to be fabulous! And at that moment someone sprayed glitter up into the air. The girls looked upwards. And glitter rained gently down onto their glowing faces.
I don’t remember much of the actual show. But Shelley remembers standing in the wings waiting to go on stage and seeing a line of girls in the wings opposite; their costumes and excitement mirroring hers. I remember them all sitting around on the stage, playing finger cymbals as one by one they got up to dance short solo numbers within a bigger group dance. I remember Louisa, blonde and dressed to kill in very little, burning up the stage as she danced a dramatic drum solo.
And I remember Chantal. Not the Chantel who now teaches at Hipsinc. No, this first Chantal was the quietest, the shyest of all my students. A young woman with a dark beehive, milk white skin and dark eyes. Who hardly spoke a word in class but whom I had noticed as time had gone on and realised was a lovely dancer. I had asked her if she would dance a solo and very quietly she had agreed. I had taught her a gentle, fluid veil solo and now she danced. Softly, with reserve, but with such tenderness and beauty that every man in that hall fell in love with her.
I know the bar ran out of alcohol and the guys had to run out and buy more during the second half. And I know how many men made a point of saying to Paul that every single woman in that show was so beautiful. Which was when I realised that men don’t expect us to be supermodels. They love us for being women, with all our lovely soft flesh and our lumps and bumps and our imperfections.
I remember the applause from the audience that seemed to go on forever. And the wonderful bouquet of flowers they presented me with at the end of the show. I remember seeing the vicar in the audience, cheering his head off. And Chantal being dragged off into the night by her boyfriend; a wonderful Mona Lisa smile on her face, a look of lust on his. And I remember Lea calling out: “come on girls, let’s go and raise some more money - we’ll charge them a quid a shimmy!!” And seeing them in amongst the audience, laughing and shimmying and rattling the collection tins. As the bar ran out of alcohol once again and the audience refused to go home.
And finally I remember standing at the back of the hall, watching all the laughter and mayhem and joy. And thinking to myself. “This would make an amazing film.”