Sally B. Dash brings blend of charisma and chutzpah to Gainesville’s burlesque scene.
By Tyler Francischine
[NOTE: A version of this article appears in the May 24, 2018 issue of the Gainesville Sun.]
Sally B. Dash emerges onstage at High Dive just before midnight on a Saturday. Her neck drips with pearls, and a burnt orange strapless gown hugs her hips. As her eyelashes flutter and her smile spreads, she tears off the gown to reveal a skirt fit for a belly dancer. The skirt gives way to a glittering set of bra and panties. She drops the bra on the ground, and two bedazzled pasties shine in the spotlights.
Not only does Sally B. Dash’s audience react enthusiastically to each layer of clothing she removes, they hang onto every subtle change in facial expression. Each raised eyebrow garners a collective “Ooh.” Every grin she breaks into brings the audiences’ hands together in a sign of audible joy.
Photo by Ian Clontz/Historia Photography
She floats down the center aisle, throwing condoms into the air from a brass bowl. Audience members jump out of their seats to grasp onto her gifts, or perhaps to move a bit closer to the giver of the gifts herself.
On another Saturday, just after lunchtime, Sally B. Dash opens the closet in the costume room at her home to reveal a series of labeled plastic bins. Just above the bins, costumes made of tulle and glitter hang in color-coded order. Every part of every get-up – from top hat to pasty to tap shoe – is appropriately filed away here until its next curtain call.
Sally B. Dash is known as Florida’s Countess of Caricature, The First Lady of Laughter, Gainesville’s reigning Queen of Burlesque. It’s her particular blend of stage presence, creativity, organizational skill and pure work ethic that makes Sally the star, no matter if she’s center stage or watching from the wings with clipboard in hand.
Dash, 36, moved to Gainesville twelve years ago, a recent graduate of Macon, Georgia’s Wesleyan College. She studied philosophy and theater, and though she had yet to explore the meaning of the word ‘burlesque,’ she already displayed a preternatural talent for the art form.
“I’ve always looked for ways to take my clothes off. My nickname in college was ‘Nekkid Katie,’” she recalls. “My friend told me, ‘You’re not just naked, with no clothes on. If you’re ‘nekkid,’ you don’t have your clothes on, and you’re up to something. It’s always been pretty fitting.”
A born performer, Dash was placed in dance classes in her hometown of Tallahassee before the age of 3. Her mother recognized her daughter’s need for physical movement.
“Apparently, the first time I saw myself in the mirror in tap shoes and a leotard, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop staring at myself, the story goes,” Dash says. “Throughout my youth, I performed in recitals, even parades. I was really good at selling it, and I have a good memory and sense of timing.”
Joining the small theater department at Wesleyan College afforded her a nearly complete set of live performance skills.
“I got to do it all, from acting to stage managing to lighting to prop and set building. That’s when I learned to use power tools,” she says.
Photo by Lisa Anderson
Before arriving in Gainesville in 2005, Dash’s familiarity with burlesque extended only to a Google search of famous burlesque performers like Dita Von Teese and Michelle L’amour, women who combine war-era pin up fashion and beauty with the sex appeal of the tease act. It wasn’t until a friend alerted her to a casting call posted at Maude’s Café that she officially entered into the world of feathers boas and pasties.
“I answered the call for this vaudeville show with burlesque, and I said I have skills as a stage manager, dancer and performer of various capacities. I got an audition. So, I dressed up in sparkly hot pants, put a face on and did a really awkward audition in the living room of this house belonging to a bunch of dudes. It was one of those ‘How did I get here?’ moments,” she says.
A Star is Born
She can produce the date without a moment’s pause: August, 31, 2013. Though she had created her stage name a few weeks beforehand, the date marks the moment her alter-ego – or more accurately, her ego – came to exist during a Manic Menagerie Vaudeville Company production.
“Sally B. Dash is an exaggeration of my real self. She gives a home for all the ridiculous faces I make normally. And she’s an outlet for all these skills I’ve been acquiring my whole life,” she says. “The first time I performed, it happened so fast. Four minutes and twenty seconds were a blur. I was outside of myself watching it all. I stepped off stage and wondered, did that really happen? Looking back, it was really satisfying to make all the creative decisions about costuming, choreography and the story I wanted to tell. That was the first time I had complete creative control and decided what I wanted to say as an artist.”
Photo by Ian Clontz/Historia Photography
Dash stayed involved in the Manic Menagerie until it dissolved, eventually going on to produce the company’s shows herself. It was during this time that her signature style solidified. She says her performances depart from classic burlesque – which reached popularity in the US in the 1860s and was outlawed by New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia by the early 1940s – in that she focuses less on overt sexuality and more on strong characterization and physical comedy. Like Gypsy Rose Lee, whose 1957 memoir became a musical and film, Dash adds humor and wit to the act of stripping.
Though the term “neoburlesque” is often used to describe today’s burlesque scene, Dash bets that each performer creates their own blend of classical influences and modern styles.
“You can ‘-lesque’ anything. Anything goes. Today, performers incorporate belly dance, acrobatics, juggling or horror, to name a few. I think the best burlesque happens when the performer is doing what’s most authentic for them,” she says. “Classic burlesque is uber-sparkly, with feather fans and exaggerated femininity. There’s more emphasis on the tease and tantalizing the audience than a narrative. That’s more out of my comfort zone, but it’s on my to-do list. Growth happens when we challenge ourselves.”
One of Dash’s favorite characters to embody is Dolores Umbridge, the ruffle skirt-wearing nemesis of Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s beloved series.
“The act starts in the famous ‘I must not tell lies’ scene, where Umbridge makes Harry write that sentence over and over as punishment. But the act takes a turn from the book. Harry storms off stage, and Umbridge rage-strips to ‘Liar’ by the Sex Pistols. I throw a giant temper tantrum on stage,” she says. “In burlesque, you get to ask yourself: what would this character’s underwear look like? I enjoy creating the answer to that question.”
Photo by Ian Clontz/Historia Photography
Dash’s emphasis on character-driven narrative was culled from the work of Boston troupe Rogue Burlesque. Dash watched performer Busty Keaton turn the theme of 1999 comedy “Office Space” on its head, and she was hooked.
“Busty Keaton is a bored office drone longing to do burlesque. She throws her work away, strips out of her outfit and chases her boss away by twirling her tassels to the tune of ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ It was so cheeky, funny and the narrative meant a lot to me at the time, as I was really miserable in an office job,” she says. “I knew, that’s it! That’s the kind of stuff for me.”
Dash welcomed her beloved Rogue Burlesque to Gainesville in February for a joint performance at High Dive. Dash’s longtime friend and fellow burlesquer Formaldehyde Flower also performed for the show, titled “Burlesque Against Humanity: Burlesque for Horrible People.” Flower says Gainesville audiences who have yet to see a Dash production are doing themselves a serious disservice.
“This woman pours her heart, soul, blood, sweat and glitter tears into everything she does, and she creates magic,” Flower says. “Everything about Sally is vital to this community, and we wouldn’t have grown the way we have without her guidance and expertise.”
“In This Together”
The list of roles Dash has taken on within Gainesville’s burlesque community is endless. Depending on the day, she acts as a performer, workshop and rehearsal leader, event coordinator, costume designer, stage manager or producer. After the Manic Menagerie dissolved, Dash evolved the production into the Market Street Revue.
For two years, she managed and produced regular performances at the Market Street Pub and Cabaret, often arriving six hours ahead of show time to move tables, hang curtains and ready the space for performance. Market Street, which closed its doors in 2016, was located on Southwest First Avenue next to Loosey’s. Dash says the venue was a haven for the various troupes comprising Gainesville’s burlesque scene.
“It was a safe place to grow as a community of artists,” she says. “We had complete control over the schedule, and all the troupes got to test out show formats and new material.”
These days, Dash says, the scene is spread out among various downtown venues like High Dive, Loosey’s, the Hardback Café’, Maude’s and Durty Nelly’s. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think it’s better now, because we can reach different potential audiences, utilizing crowds that already go to these different venues,” she says. “Our audience is people of all ages. We get some students, but mostly it’s working adults that live here. And it’s mostly female. There’s a perception that our audiences are all sleazy dudes, but it’s actually a lot of women who feel empowered by seeing us get up there and be vulnerable and powerful in that way.”
Photo by Allen Finley
Dash produces Sally B.’s Dashing Revue at High Dive a few times a year, creating the area’s only burlesque show with live music. She’s also a member of Dr. Sinn’s Freak Island Musical Sideshow, a group of bawdy lasses that combine clowning, live music and fire to the tease act. To keep track of all her involvements, as well as the many shows she attends as a fan, Dash created the Hoggetowne Burlesque and Drag Alliance website. It’s a one-stop shop for all of Gainesville’s live burlesque shows.
“We have 35 to 40 active performers in the community. We’re very often participating in each other’s shows, or at the very least attending each other’s shows. And we have a regular audience who follows all the troupes,” she says. “I started managing this community calendar partly to keep an overview of the schedule, but also to make sure we’re not competing with each other on the same nights and weekends. I’m such a dork, but there’s nothing I love more than a beautifully organized document.”
Dash feels strongly about building a sense of community within Gainesville’s arts scene, connecting not only other burlesquers to each other but cross-pollinating within the town’s diverse art forms.
“The only way we’re going to make Gainesville a city for the art is if we’re all supporting each other and doing this together. Our town is way too small for us to be competing with each other,” she says. “I don’t want to fight masses of people to do the things I want to do. I like that I could go anywhere and run into people I know.”
When Dash began her burlesque career half a decade ago, her fan base was a group of close friends, people who knew the name written on her birth certificate. In the years that followed, she’s expanded her audience, reach and level of community involvement to the point where her face is recognized in the harsh light of day, a status of célébrité she must reckon with.
“When people who I don’t know recognize me in my normal, naked face, it’s awesome but terrifying. I feel like, my cover’s blown. I don’t have a secret identity anymore,” she says. “I walked into a Downtown Drag event in January, and somebody said, ‘Hey! It’s the queen of Gainesville burlesque!’ I was like, ‘Who? Where?’ Then I realized, ‘Oh, you’re talking to me!’ It’s a whole new world. This life is something I’ve daydreamed about, and now it’s real.”