The DIXIE Showgirl (1953)

by Alex Wellerstein, published May 18th, 2012

There are a lot of photographs of nuclear weapons tests, and there’s a pretty standard visual vocabulary for how those look. (Something I’ve touched on before.) Personally I find it a little easy to get desensitized to mushroom clouds after awhile. They all look more or less the same, though some are a little more sinister looking than others. It’s easy to lose a sense of scale, it’s easy to start seeing them all as a blur. Perhaps it’s one of the consequences of being in a country that conducted over 300 atmospheric nuclear tests, and has circulated photographs of many of them for quite a long time?

But every once in awhile I find one that stumps me.

Shot DIXIE of Operation Upshot-Knothole was set off on April 6, 1953. It was a “weapons-related” test; it was done for reasons relating to weapons design (as opposed to testing the effects of the weapon). Carey Sublette says it was also an experiment using LiD as a boosting agent, for those who are curious.

It wasn’t a terribly large explosion by the standards of the day — “only” 11 kilotons, so smaller even than the Hiroshima bomb (though still large enough to, say, take out downtown Boston). It was dropped from a plane and detonated some 6,000 feet above the ground, which is some three to four times higher in the air than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had been set off. As a result, its cloud was a mushroom “cap” without a stem — it was too high off the ground to suck up the debris and dirt necessary to form a vertical column.

Already that makes for somewhat unusual nuclear test photographs, as you can see above. A lonely little cloud. It almost could be just any old cloud hanging out there — I’m just a little black raincloud, pay no attention to little me. But it’s almost totally composed of highly-radioactive fission products, so don’t start feeling too sorry for it.

I occasionally go through the photo library of the DOE’s Nevada Site Office, which has a rather large collection of scanned photos of atmospheric tests online. The Upshot-Knothole series is quite a large one, and there is a numbing effect looking at so many of them. So when I saw this one of the DIXIE event, I was initially just totally bamboozled:

What. Is. Going. On. Here? A few things to take note of:

1. This is an official government photo in an official government archive. This isn’t the same as those “Miss Atomic Bomb” photos in the later 1950s, which were created by casinos and otherwise private individuals.

2. That little cloud under the dancer’s right foot is, of course, the DIXIE cloud, seen from a lower angle than in the first photo posted here. There’s some definite posing going on. It’s also definitely taken on the premises of the Nevada Test Site with foreknowledge of the test itself. I don’t know if reporters were allowed to visit the site for the DIXIE test; they were allowed to view a few other tests in the Upshot-Knothole series, but I don’t see any mention of them being at DIXIE.

3. This isn’t purposefully frivolous and campy like the “Miss Atomic Bomb” photos. Zoom in on her face. She’s trying to do something, well, artsy here. She’s trying to express something. The power of science? The futility of progress? The existential angst of deterrence? I don’t really know. But it’s something.

4. Awhile back, I showed this photo to a friend of mine, Dawn Davis Loring, who is also a dancer, dance instructor, and someone much better versed than I in the language of dancing. She suggested to me that the appearance and posture of the person in the photo suggested the dancer was competent but not an expert. Her balance is slightly wrong and so she’s overcompensating a bit with her arm, or something along those lines. Which possibly suggests that she is a showgirl from nearby Las Vegas. But again, the dancer isn’t done up in a campy, frivolous, or unusually sexualized style. (Obviously it is still sexualized to a large degree, but compare it to the “Miss Atomic Bomb” photos to see what I mean. It’s far more “serious.”)

But I don’t know the backstory on this photo, and I’ve not been able to find anything on it. The DOE folks who host the archive don’t have anything about it in their records either, apparently. But it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill nuclear testing photo. 

Update: A helpful Russian reader forwarded me another photograph from the same series!

It appears to be originally from this site, which tentatively identifies it as something called “Atomic Ballet,” and identifies the dancer as one Sally McCloskey. The date they give is wrong, though, if it’s DIXIE, which it looks like it is (the stemless cloud).1 I’ve been able to find very little on Ms. McCloskey, except that she was also a dancer in the 1956 film Anything Goes.2

Double-Update: The aforementioned Dawn Davis Loring tracked down an oral history with Donald English, a photographer for the a Las Vegas news bureau. Here’s the relevant part:

Sometimes we would cover it from Angel’s Peak, take pictures of the mushroom cloud. Sometimes we’’d take dancers up to the top of the peak. I’’d have one girl, Sally McCloskey, we did a little series that was called Angel’’s Dance. And she was a ballet dancer, not a showgirl, and she did an interpretive dance to the mushroom cloud as it came up and we shot a series of pictures and sent it out on the wire and they called it Angel’’s Dance. We just did anything we could to make the picture a little bit different because the newspapers would run the mushroom cloud pictures, but they were always hungry for anything that had any kind of a different approach.

So that clears up quite a bit about where this was shot, and what it was meant to be! And apparently she was a ballet dancer after all. (Actually, see below…)

Update, the Third: Searching around a bit more, I found a citation for the Angel’s Dance. The Oakland Tribune ran it on page 86 of their June 28, 1953, edition. It appears to have been a feature in the PARADE magazine that newspapers sometimes insert into their Sunday editions. There is a preview page available online:

Pretty cool! I managed to coax a higher resolution out of that archive site, too. Here’s the caption:

High (6,000 feet) over the yawning canyons of the West, a young girl cavorted recently in what could be the Dance of the Century. Her name: Sally McCloskey, chorus girl from Las Vegas’ plush Sands Hotel.
The place: the gravely summit of Angel’s Peak.
Her task: to interpret the greatest drama of our time in dance rhythms. For high over her sinuous, leaping form rose a symbol no eye could miss: the pale, rising cloud of an atomic bomb just exploded 40 miles away.

The poses are, counter-clockwise from the top left: 1. ‘Apprehension’ starts dance, 2. which illustrates ‘impact’, 3.  goes on to symbol of ‘awe’, 4. Climax of dance (which took place at dawn in temperature little above freezing) in brisk pose Sally calls “Survival.”

It’s always a little apprehensive to announce, “I have looked into this and found not too much, and here are my guesses.” This time, though, it paid off from some really helpful readers, and I think I’ve just about rounded out the whole story of this crazy photo. I was right about some things (showgirl, seriousness, ultimate goal), but wrong about it being an official government production (which raises the question of why it’s in the archive, I guess). Anyway, thoroughly fascinating all around.

  1. The date they give on that site, June 4, would be for CLIMAX, which — all name-related jokes aside — was a very different looking test. The jet contrails in the second photo also help confirm it as being DIXIE. It just may be a numerical switcharoo, though— 6/4/1953 vs. 4/6/1953, the former being CLIMAX and the latter being DIXIE. []
  2. Doing searches on “Atomic Ballet” in ProQuest, however, did turn up one interesting little nugget: In December 1947, there was a Japanese ballet troupe from Hiroshima that performed “The Story of the Atomic Bomb and its Aftermath” for British occupation forces in Kure, Japan. []

8 Responses to “The DIXIE Showgirl (1953)”

  1. ShockwaveLover says:

    Huh. I’ve seen this photo before, but I never knew there was such a story behind it!

  2. krepon says:

    This could have come right from a Tintin comic book.

  3. Patrick says:

    Nice detective work, Alex…I show this picture to my class all the time and now I have some info and context to supplement it. 🙂

  4. Bill Higgins says:

    It’s always a little apprehensive to announce, “I have looked into this and found not too much, and here are my guesses.”

    I know how you feel. Want another mystery? (It’s not related to nuclear secrecy, except that the dancers happen to appear alongside a nuclear-powered rocket in some of the pictures.)

    Who are these dancers, and how did Allan Grant come to be taking their photographs in 1949?

    Here’s some context.

  5. J B says:

    Having grown up in ‘the Cold War’, it is hard for me to imagine the use of these weapons in any manner, other than destruction. Perhaps that is why my reaction to these photographs is one of abject horror.
    I know at one point, they were looking at utilizing atomic/thermonuclear bombs for ‘peaceful activities’. Such as various plans of mining/fracking/etc.
    I wonder if we, as a society, can ever move past the specter of Armageddon associated with atomic bombs.

  6. […] had fun with the little visual mystery I posted last Friday, so here’s another one I’ve been chewing over for […]

  7. […] The other day, I saw a rather medium-sized, plump, stand-alone cumulus cloud hovering over Washington, D.C., and somehow my brain made the connection between it and that photo of the stemless mushroom cloud from the DIXIE shot. […]

  8. Patrick McCray says:


    Followup – one of my students uncovered this:

    It’s an interview with the photographer who took the photo.