5 min

Music of the spheres

Fluid moves & dirty dancing

Credit: R Kelly Clipperton

happens when two hard-working, foxy, innovative women meet and fall for each

Well, if one of them is the well-known sex columnist and burlesque queen Sasha
and the other is celebrated DJ, promoter and music writer Denise Benson, they
mix business with pleasure. Both women love what they do, so it made perfect
sense to merge their passions – all of ’em – last Pride Day. After a flirty
exchange of e-mails in which Benson expressed admiration for Sasha’s column,
the two finally connected at Ciao Edie on the Sunday night of Pride. The
pick-up line, as uttered by Sasha: “Can I get you that drink you didn’t want
last night?” Back at Sasha’s, Benson was beguiled by good food, great music and
an impressive collection of cassette tapes. And, yes, by the woman, Sasha,

The rest, as the saying goes, is hook-up history.

They laughingly acknowledge the potential cheesiness of citing Pride Day as
their anniversary, but theirs isn’t your typical dyke fairy-tale. For one
thing, neither woman identifies as lesbian. Both are bi, from both ends of the
spectrum, and along with possessing more human energy than should be legal,
they share an urge to transcend the limitations of community.

When we three sit down to chat, Sasha describes her approach to life: “I’ve
always enjoyed diversity in every aspect of my life, whether in food,
literature, music, sex, all things.” Never one to hesitate, she admits that,
“Denise gets a rash from how fast I decide everything, but my view is, ‘What’s
the worst that can happen?'”

Her popular sex advice column “Love Bites” says it all: This is a gal who never
shies away from anything. A proud exhibitionist since childhood (she once
caught hell for offering to pose nude for the other kids on the playground),
she’s always loved her time alone just as much. The pre-teen author of three
novels tapped out in her family’s basement on a Brother electric typewriter her
parents won on the game show Beat The Clock, Sasha grew up and went on to write
a long-running column for the Montreal Mirror, the same one we currently devour
in Eye weekly. She also stripped for many years in Montreal and here in
Toronto, where she moved five years ago, seeking a change of scene and more
lucrative gigs. “Self-satisfaction has always been my primary focus,” she says.
“Acceptance has never really mattered all that much.”

Denise Benson hails from Grafton, Ontario: population 1,000. She got her first
turntable at age five when she promised to quit sucking her thumb. Her
first-ever gig as a DJ was her grade eight graduation. A too-punk-for-Grafton
haircut lessened the number of high-school gigs she played. Later a student at
Ryerson, she hit the Toronto queer club scene in 1987, spinning discs at
legendary joints like Showbiz and Nuts ‘N’ Bolts. She was also responsible for
bringing wildly popular women’s nights to straight clubs like the Caribou, The
Claremont and The Boom Boom Room.

For a woman who claims she only just discovered coffee, her schedule is more
than a little impressive. In addition to hosting a popular radio show Mental
Chatter on CKLN, she writes two columns for Eye and occasional pieces for the
music mag Exclaim! Oh yeah, and there’s also her ambient Wednesday night
groove-fest, Glide, which moves from the Gypsy to Fez Batik for the summer. On
top of all that, she throws kick-ass parties every year for Pride. Shy yet
fierce, Benson admits that being with someone as outgoing as Sasha has been
very interesting and educational.

“We both feed off of and feed into each other’s work,” says Benson. Anyone
who’s had the pleasure of taking in a recent Scandelles burlesque show has seen
this mutual inspiration in action. While Sasha dances sexily in pasties and
yummy costumes, Benson reigns over the turntable, often chuckling as she
watches her lover thrill the packed house.

They’re a dynamic duo on and off stage. Asked what they like to do during
downtime together, both look a bit perplexed. Downtime, what’s that? Fuelled by
good coffee (Sasha’s influence) and the organic supplement Greens+ (as promoted
by Denise), these two are constantly planning, writing, performing and working
to blur the lines between gay and straight consciousness. “Everything I do, I
love – it doesn’t feel like work,” says Sasha.

They do admit to being movie junkies who love travelling together. However,
they might not rush back to Provincetown anytime soon. Although happily housed
at the notorious White Horse Inn (in a room formerly occupied by John Waters),
they found the women’s bar scene in P-town downright depressing. They spent
most of their time in leather-boy bars or on a private beach they both remember
as the highlight.

It seems fitting to inquire if, like every other couple, they have a song they
feel is “theirs.” They exchange looks and giggle before admitting that it’s
definitely the Beach Boys hit, “God Only Knows.” Denise shakes her head,
laughing, “That was decided pretty early on, actually.”

Sasha has Denise revisiting her indie-rock roots; Benson’s managed to turn
Sasha’s ear to electronic music. What doesn’t the public know about the private
Sasha? “There’s not much separation! Well… she’s a really, really wicked
cook.” And how about Denise when she’s not in the public eye? “She likes Pink
Floyd and Q107 a lot – and silence.”

I ask Denise what significant changes she’s noticed on the women’s scene over
the course of 15-plus years of playing records at clubs. “More fluidity in
terms of gender identity, definitely, probably for many reasons. More and more
ease with the concept of mixed events. There’s more fluidity in terms of
orientation, too.” It’s true she got some flak from women who felt she’d sold
out when she began playing straight clubs. And some women refuse to attend
events that aren’t women-only. The flyer for Savour, her annual two-party Pride
blowout reads: “All Savour events are for women, trans folks and our friends
(respectful men included).” It’s an approach that celebrates and reflects the
current reality of the queer community, though Benson respects that some people
are happier in exclusively female environments. “But we love our gay
boyfriends,” she adds with a grin. And our straight ones, too – Sasha recalls
with delight an apparently straight guy at one of the Scandelles shows getting
totally turned while watching a drag king do his thing.

In fact, Scandelles shows regularly draw a diverse audience of gay boys, dykes,
curious straights of all genders and yes, swingers from Scarborough, no matter
what the venue. A night with the talented Scandelles crew is campy, intelligent
and dead sexy, with something for everyone in the crowd. Before the show even
starts there’s a palpable snap in the air, a sex-hopeful vibe and sense of
diversity united by one thing: “Let’s get turned on!”

Yet what separates burlesque from stripping and pure T and A are the elements
of thoughtful fantasy narrative mixed with slow-mo peek-a-boo – proof that
what’s left to the imagination is often sexier than full-out beaver-views and
pole-climbing. There’s also an interactive component to Scandelles shows: the
Bare-e-oke interlude, where wanna-be burlesquers strut their stuff (to wild
applause) is usually overrun with keen volunteers. These events are best
attended with a mixed gang, if only so you can see what happens to your labels
and boundaries by night’s end.

When asked to offer Pride weekend survival tips for other couples, they both
pause to think for a moment. Benson says she’s been spared a lot of drama by
working around the clock most years. “It’s maybe not a good weekend for making
assumptions,” she suggests. “And jealousy is the most intense drug ever, so
watch out for that.”

Noting that this year’s Pride will be her first with a female lover, Sasha
rolls her eyes and says, “What do I know? I’m the one who needs tips!”

For their part, this awesome, inspiring pair won’t have to worry about a thing.
They’ll be too busy working and partying together as they simultaneously
celebrate their anniversary – with a few hundred thousand friends in

* Sasha and her burlesque review join DJs Denise Benson, Lytes and Spinner for
the Fri, Jun 27 Do Me A Flavour party at Surface (12 Brant St). Benson then
teams up with DJ Zahra for the Sat, Jun 28 Nectar party at the Mockingbird (580
King St W). Tix for either event are $12 in advance and $15 at the door, which
opens at 10pm; call (416) 760-6110.

* Marnie Woodrow is a Toronto writer who loves outside the box.