Just don't call them nelly guys

In a town that knows cheerleading, folks are flipping for a relentlessly upbeat gay squad

Not long ago, Cheer Dallas, the country's first serious gymnastics-oriented, pompon-eschewing, non-drag-wearing gay cheerleading squad, had the opportunity for statewide exposure. This Week in Texas, a magazine with a huge circulation that lists events in the gay community across the Lone Star State, wanted to put a couple of the best-looking Cheer Dallas squad members on its cover.

The only hitch was they would have to appear bare-chested, showing off not their red-white-and-blue, collegiate-looking polyester uniforms, but their body-builderlike physiques.

The Cheer Dallas board considered the request, but turned it down. First of all, the board did not want to undermine the unity of the 50-plus-person squad by singling out only a few of its members as cover boys; the coverage also would not be fair, they thought, to the handful of its members who are women; but mostly, the board simply felt that beefcakes were not in keeping with the athletic, activist image Cheer Dallas has worked so hard to cultivate--an image so clean-cut and wholesome, the squad makes the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders in their midriffs and plunging necklines look like showgirls.

"When people think of gay cheerleaders, they think of limp-wristed nelly guys in drag," says Ken Jorns, a Dallas interior designer, former head cheerleader at Texas Christian University, and founder of Cheer Dallas. "We're professional, all-around good American boys and girls."

Call them America's Squad.
It is dusk on a recent Sunday evening, the most serene time of the week, the time most people are winding down from the weekend and renewing themselves for the work week ahead.

At the cavernous Dallas Gymnastics Center, in the warehouse district near the intersection of Stemmons Freeway and Northwest Highway, a group of men and women have left friends, family, and quietude behind. For the next three hours they will risk life, limb, and laryngitis as they triple back-flip, toe-jump, and rah-rah their way into the night.

Most couldn't imagine a better way to spend their time. For some, cheerleading borders on an addiction. "My mom thinks I just can't give it up," says Tav Tefner, a former high-school and college cheerleader, and presently the only lesbian on the squad. A 25-year-old manager for an insurance company with a turned-up nose and a round, friendly face, Tefner has been with the group since its inception. "I think it's being part of a group, a unit," she says of her attachment to the squad, "that and the performance high, the rush you get from the crowd and the applause."

For others, like 33-year-old Kenny Edmonds, a manager at American Express who has never cheered before in his life, becoming a member of Cheer Dallas--for which he plans to try out in mid-March--would fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a cheerleader, something he was too afraid to attempt in high school or college for fear of being suspected a homosexual.

"I always loved gymnastics and dancing, and I broke more than a few light bulbs with a baton," Edmonds says.

Edmonds has been out of the closet for eight years. Tonight, as he sizes up the Cheer Dallas members as they back-flip from one end of a large mat to the other, and suspend in midair, touching hands to their widely spread feet like human wishbones, his only fear is of not being good enough to make the squad.

"I'm trying not to be intimidated," he says.

Long past the time that its members, who range in age from 21 to 48, should have hung up the proverbial pompons for good, this 3-year-old group has garnered a national reputation for gravity-defying derring-do. Some of the dangerous stunts performed by Cheer Dallas cheerleaders have been prohibited from high-school cheerleading competitions. These include three- and four-tier pyramids; the basket toss, in which a fearless cheerleader stands on the crisscrossed, interlocking hands of two squad members, is catapulted high into the air, then descends while doing a triple-back-somersault; and the gauntlet, in which a squad member is thrown 20 feet across the room by eight fellow cheerleaders as if shot from a cannon, and back-flips down to earth.

This group is so good at what it does, it came in second in last year's National Cheerleading Association's competition at Reunion Arena, behind a squad of full-time cheerleading instructors for the NCA.

While different goals have led individuals to Cheer Dallas, the squad is united by a single overriding goal. It may be a cheerleading squad without a team, but it has a mission: to raise money for, and the spirits of, a community ravaged by illness and grief. The squad's cheerleading mercenaries have raised tens of thousands of dollars for AIDS-related charities. In the coming year, they hope to do the same for victims of other incurable diseases.

Their reputation as performers and activists is catching on. They have been asked to perform at numerous functions including the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii, the annual Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation fund-raiser, and a Central Park rally commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, the beginning of the gay-rights movement in this country.

A week does not go by when Ken Jorns doesn't get a call from another city asking how the success of Cheer Dallas can be duplicated.

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