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Windmill Girls meet for reunion and remember dancing days in old Soho

They recall how dancers got jobs aged 14 but 'the nudity was minute'

20 July, 2018 — By Helen Chapman

The Windmill Girls in Ham Yard on Thursday

GLAMOROUS women gathered for a reunion to reminisce about their days as Windmill Girls and cosmopolitan Soho.

The group, who met at Ham Yard, were once nude dancers at Soho’s Windmill Theatre. The Windmill got around “if it moves, it’s rude” censorship regulations by hiring women as “living statues” or “tableaux vivants”.

Windmill Girl Jill Millard Shapiro told the Extra: “It was a unique theatre. It was not a strip club. It ran under strict licensing laws. People think they were strippers but they were not.”

The recent “MeToo” movement has called out sexual assault and harassment in the workplace but and has renewed a worldwide debate about the objectification of women. Speaking about today’s MeToo movement, Ms Shapiro said she felt “people nowadays are snow-flakey about these things”, adding: “We weren’t under any abuse from the cast or staff. It was mostly males in the audience who would, of course, be hoping to see a costume slip here or there but the nudity was nothing, it was minute.

“What would a woman’s movement have against us who were doing something we loved. Our mothers and grand- fathers would come to dress rehearsals. If the family were coming to see us, what woman’s movement would have anything to say against that?”

Ms Shapiro started at the theatre aged 15 and left at 20, moving to a career in photo journalism. She was there from 1958 to 1963 and compiled a book, Remembering Revudeville 1932-1964, about the Windmill Girls on the 50th anniversary of the theatre’s closure, which was in 1964. It opened in 1931 after being taken over by Laura Henderson with Vivian Van Damm as the theatre manager.

Ms Shapiro said: “I walked  into the theatre at age 14-and- a-half and asked for an audition. I was sent to see Vivian Van Damm and I didn’t even need to audition. He just asked me if I could sing and dance. I said yes. I was signed in 1958.”

The theatre, in Great Windmill Street, hosted acts from jugglers to comedians, with top-performers Peter Sellers, Tommy Cooper and Dick Emery beginning their careers there.

“We loved Soho,” said Ms Shapiro. “People would say it’s dangerous but we weren’t under any attack. Everybody knew us and knew what we did.”

Windmill Girl Joan Bravery said: “Soho has always been sleazy, as it is today with the strip clubs hidden behind closed doors because they couldn’t advertise. It was always cosmopolitan.

“The building was amazing and full of everything from songwriters, costume designers and photographers. We were just so happy to be there. It was wonderful. We were like little pink ponies when we came out the dressing rooms.”

The girls would dance on stage with giant fans which were used to hide the principal dancer until she was revealed in the nude as still as a statue. The girls would perform six shows a day from 12.30pm to 10.30pm.

Ms Shapiro said: “They were all trained dancers and singers. The only dancers allowed to move on the stage were the principal fan dancers. We stayed for years. It was a home from home. The camaraderie and the friendships made it like a family. We loved it.”

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