Dallas Firedancers celebrate a quarter-century of hot traditions


LEATHER WITH A PURPOSE | Firedancers co-founder Robert Cantrell (seated right of the “25”) and current president Gabe Sims (standing rear far right) join with their brothers at the Hidden Door for a commemorative portrait marking 25 years of service to the community. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Among the gay nightclub scene in 1987, a bar called the Sundance was the leather spot in Dallas. Housed on Maple Avenue where The Brick used to be, it was also where an idea was formed. A group of friends knew the AIDS food pantry needed money. Banding together, they held a fundraiser.

And thus were the Firedancers born from relatively humble beginnings.

“That garden party was held on June 14 and we raised $350 for the pantry,” founding member Robert Cantrell recalls. “And so that really was the inception of the group.”

Like many fundraisers, it could have been a one-time event. Indeed, it wasn’t until the following November that the Firedancers officially began to take shape. First, they adopted their Native American identity, creating a significant logo representing founders John Fellrath, Kim Olsen, Manse Bridwell, Lucas Keith and Cantrell. As the only member still around since its inception, Cantrell has seen the group grow from his small circle of friends into something bigger than he could have imagined. A look that hints of both pride and pain flashes across Cantrell’s face when he thinks about it.

“The years have gone by fast, but gosh … the number of people we’ve lost,” Cantrell says, his voice trailing. “The group has become a lot more social and the purpose of it really is to have a good time among like-minded individuals. I’d say it’s not as structured as it was and the new guard coming in is sort of relaxing the rules.”

The new guard could be seen as the next generation of leather, one that includes gear such as rubber and latex, and also that doesn’t mind white tennis shoes so much. That is — or was, rather — a big thing in the old-school leather communities.

“It signified that you’re a boy and those just weren’t worn in leather clubs,” Cantrell says.

But he has faith in current Firedancers president Gabe Sims. He describes Sims as the guy who straddles both the new and traditional ways — a notion that Sims himself chuckles at. The current Mr. Hidden Door (also the home bar for Firedancers) and a contestant at this year’s IML, Sims takes a diplomatic stance on the differences — but clearly they aren’t something to be ignored.

“I’m aware of a lot of the old guard tradition, and now some of the newer guards, while they are aware of it, don’t heed to it all,” Sims explains. “When I came on board as the president, I wanted the best of both worlds for everyone. I guess maybe I am a new guard person, although it makes me laugh that Robert would say that about me. I guess he saw it more than I did.”

With all the pomp and circumstance in its structure and pledging, both men confirm that Firedancers is really a social group designed for having fun, while simultaneously helping out local charities. Over 25 years, with their annual Ruby Slipper Run and Souper Bowl chili cook-off, they have helped agencies such as Legacy Counseling Center/Founders Cottage, AIDS Interfaith Network, the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic and Bryan’s House.

For budding leatherettes wishing to join, there aren’t any embarrassing hazing rituals one might expect from a group of leathermen. Becoming a member is considerably easy, but tenacity and some good glutes are helpful.

“Usually, people come to us so we don’t solicit much,” Cantrell says. “But they have to come to two meetings and then take part in a special event we’re hosting. They fill out the form and tell us about themselves. We hope they hang out at the Hidden Door and we also hope they can hold their liquor! It takes about three months to become a full member from their first meeting to when they are voted in to the club.”

The cherry on top is the “bare butt” pledge tradition. Sims explains while laughing at perhaps the most mischievous acts the group partakes in.

“Well, we have this mascot bear that they have to carry around and they have to collect friendship pins from other groups,” he says. “But once they’ve completed all of that, at the end of the term, he must moon the club. Then they’ll earn their back patch with the logo.”

In keeping with the Native American aspects, the Firedancers incorporated a seven-sided Cherokee symbol into their logo, surrounded by colored flames that symbolize the founding members. They first hung their flag in the old Trestle club before moving to the Hidden Door.

Identity is crucial to leather groups (although some today might call it branding) and the Firedancers official colors of yellow, black and red are incorporated into their bylaws. The influence doesn’t end there. Even the hierarchal positions take on far more interesting titles than just president and secretary.

“We decided back then to name the officers the way a tribe might,” Cantrell says, “so from the top down we have the Supreme Chief of the Fire (president), the Keeper of the

Lance (vice president), the Shaman (secretary), the Medicine Man (treasurer); my first job was Pathfinder, or road captain.”

In a sign of the times, the board added Dream Catcher to the roster. He handles the web administration.

Sims brings a notable devoutness to his position. He holds Cantrell in high esteem and even looks to him for added perspective at times before taking action where he needs. In short, the new and old guards are in harmony as Firedancers turns 25.

“Before I do any major decisions for direction of the club regarding bylaws or altering traditions, I always seek his advice,” Sims says. “For tradition, we have to stay true to that and I have hope for the new guard on learning them. I don’t want to lose what Robert helped create and so I always look to what he thinks and what he would do. And before I move forward, I want to be sure that Robert blesses it.”

“Whether it’s the new or the old or both, I know Gabe can strongly lead this group. At the end of it all, we’re men who appreciate the leather culture and we help out our community,” Cantrell says.

Clearly, respect is a big part of Firedancers.

— Rich Lopez

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 28, 2012.