Volume 34, Number 1


Ceri Marriott

Sophia excelled at her job. She had been talent-spotted early on in her career, taken on as one of the youngest apprentices ever, and now commanded a high premium for her services within the company.
Images of her dancing as a young teenager had spread across social media eighteen months ago, images taken by her uncle and posted to the world 'to give her the best chance in a really competitive industry' he'd said. She'd trusted he knew what he was doing. He was one of her few well-off relatives, had always been very kind and loving and had taken a great interest in her in all sorts of ways. One day he’d told her and her parents he’d received an email offering her an audition with a dance company in the UK, with a view to her being trained to dance professionally. The company would pay for the necessary travel papers, her passage, house her with other fellow dancers of a similar age and pay her boarding fees. She wouldn’t have to do a thing, other than work hard and gradually repay the cost of her papers, passage, and boarding. At the end of it all, she’d be a fully trained dancer. Her parents were thrilled for her and so was she. She loved to dance more than anything but had never expected she could fulfill her life’s ambition to become a professional dancer, not even in her own country, let alone somewhere overseas. And that was how she’d come to the UK with her parents’ blessing and her new life had begun.

She’d settled in quickly, welcomed by two older women dance teachers who were also to be like her mother and sister figures, they explained. They introduced her to a young woman, Petra, who was the lead dancer of the company, and four other girls all slightly older than herself. The house was quite big, with a large room in the basement of the building next door converted into a stage. It was here that she’d started to train to dance and soon found herself performing. Initially she’d found the dancing quite restrictive as she’d had to do exactly the moves she was taught, but it seemed her teachers were very impressed by her potential and soon gave her free rein to dance as the music took her. They also reassured Sofia they would look after the money she earned each month, pay back seventy five percent of it each month to the company for her and give her the remainder to live on.

Her first performance was the one which she’d never forget. Not for the rest of her life. The two dance teachers had told her she was to dance a solo in front of a very important sponsor of the company. They gave her a further tip: this very important man might ask her to do some additional moves after her dance, and that if she really wanted to succeed with the company, she should do exactly as he said. She had danced her heart out and then puzzled, reluctantly, done as he had asked. She hadn’t expected that becoming a professional dancer would make her feel so torn inside—happy at doing well—everyone had said she’d done brilliantly, and she’d get the chance to dance again very soon—and somehow so dirty, and yes, ashamed. She didn’t even know if she wanted to do this again.

Pleased with her progress, her dance teachers had been full of praise, given her an extra £5 for doing so well and a pill to take just in case she felt ill later. And so, it had gone on, with one sponsor then another. By the time she had realised how her uncle had made his money, she knew she was completely stuck: little or no money ever, reliance on her mother and sister figures for food and board, and she knew they kept her papers hidden away. Two more young girls had been delivered by the same van driver, and Sofia hated that she could do absolutely nothing to prevent her story being repeated.

One night, she had another client to entertain. The evening progressed as it inevitably did with the dancing she now detested and the solitary entertainment which repulsed every part of her. This time, though, the client had changed when they were left on their own. Sofia hadn’t trusted him at first when he’d said he didn’t want to hurt her, didn’t want her to do anything for him—and she’d been so right not to believe him. Of course, he wanted her to do something. Something so huge, she doubted she could ever do it. He told her he was an undercover policeman, that the house and its occupants had been under surveillance for the past six months, and that there was a way she could bring an end to it all, that she could save herself and other girls like her and that there would be special support for her and the girls in the company afterwards. Then he’d shown her his ID, said he’d booked her again in a couple of days and would be back for her answer then, together with instructions as to what to do next.

Sofia knew exactly what she was going to do. She decided she’d do what she’d been asked and two days later, on hearing the plans, agreed to them without question.

The following week, her dancing had a particularly poignant quality. On the appointed day, she did as she’d been asked, kissed her special client on the cheek and said “Thank you, you'll never know how much you've helped me. Act now and do what we agreed. I’ll leave under my own steam as arranged in case anyone is watching—thank you again.” Sofia turned and went quickly to her room, pulled open her wardrobe drawer and slowly, sadly, swallowed a handful of sleeping tablets she’d found in a bathroom cabinet in Petra's room one day and saved for when she really, really needed to sleep. She drank a small bottle of water, took a crumpled piece of paper from the bedside table, and on it wrote a note. It said simply Gone to dance to a different tune and tempo. By the time you read this, you and all your lot, including my uncle, will be in police cells charged with people smuggling, illegal trafficking of young people, and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Useless to attempt to find me. I will no longer be here.