Just don't call them nelly guys

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

"They're absolutely incredible," says Rick Cirillo, national sales manager for the gay-and-lesbian community at American Airlines, which has sponsored some of the group's fund-raisers. "There's not another group of their type in the country."

It is somehow fitting that Dallas, which gave the world the most famous group of female cheerleaders, would spawn a gay counterpart. Not only is cheerleading part of the city's culture, but it may be its most successful and well-known homegrown product.

Even before the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders jiggled their way onto the national scene, Dallas was known as the cheerleading capital of the country, thanks in large part to Lawrence Herkimer (a former Southern Methodist University cheerleader who invented the "Herkie" jump), who built a cheerleading-supply empire and created the National Cheerleading Association, which hosts week-long summer camps throughout the country.

Texas as a whole is infamous for taking cheerleading deathly seriously. Where else but in Texas could you find a mom who hired a hit man to bump off the mother of her daughter's archrival, thus distracting the rival with grief, so her daughter would have a better shot at a position on a coveted cheerleading squad?

It's hard to imagine a Dallas mother considering murder to get her child on a gay cheerleading squad (but considering the growing fame of Cheer Dallas, anything is possible).

That Dallas would beget such an upbeat, noncontroversial, good-natured assault on the AIDS crisis is also cultural. The East and West Coast gay communities gave the world ACT-UP, which takes an in-your-face, street-theater approach to raising public awareness of discrimination against gays, inadequate AIDS funding, and the plight of AIDS patients. Dallas, for its part, gave the world upbeat cheerleaders whose "Cheer for the Cure," ("Hey, crowd, Yell Cheer for the Cure...") is their signature chant.

The gay-and-lesbian community is grateful for Cheer Dallas' high-spirited approach to such a depressing issue. "Cheer Dallas has a team--the community at large," explains Richard Curtin, a member of the world-renowned Turtle Creek Chorale, whose ranks have been decimated by the HIV virus (60 of its 200 members have succumbed to AIDS) and whose AIDS fund has been the beneficiary of Cheer Dallas' fund raising.

"Cheer Dallas has come along at a crucial point," says Curtin. "They are a constant reminder that people are on our side, that there are cheerleaders for us. They offer an outlet to keep our spirits up that one day there will be a cure, one day we won't be going to memorial services every other week, that one day we won't be fund-raised to death, that one day we won't need a Cheer Dallas.

"What better persona is there than a cheerleader, who keeps your morale up even while your team is losing the game--and we are losing the game."

Four years ago this spring, Ken Jorns was approached by two friends about the upcoming Gay Games, scheduled for June 1994 in New York City. Held every four years, the Gay Games are the homosexual equivalent of the Olympics, with teams competing from around the world. Team Dallas, a group of more than 100 gay and lesbian athletes--swimmers, bowlers, etc.--were planning to compete.

Jorns' friends, who know that among the most important events in his life was the day Lawrence Herkimer himself hand-picked him to be an NCA instructor, thought it would be neat if Team Dallas had its own cheerleading squad.

Jorns thought it was a splendid idea and ran with it. For two months he talked to people in the gay community who were former cheerleaders or gymnasts. More than 50 people showed up for the first meeting of Cheer Dallas in July 1993. At the next meeting, a month later, 75 people showed up.

From the outset, the group had some very impressive credentials. Jorns lured Dallas-based choreographer Dennis Grounds, who had worked on the Macy's Day Parade, to create the squad's routines. Grounds' latest claim to fame: He plays the White Ranger in the kiddie-television-and-merchandise phenomenon Power Rangers and helps choreograph for the Power Rangers' European touring company.

Though the Gay Games were still many months off, Cheer Dallas found places to perform dress rehearsals. They debuted in late September at the Gay Pride Parade on Cedar Springs Road. The crowd, says Jorns, went wild. "Cheer Dallas hasn't slowed down since," he says.

Shortly after the parade, they were asked to kick off the Life Walk, the largest citywide AIDS fund-raiser. As Cheer Dallas' reputation began to spread, the group received the distinct honor of being invited to participate in the opening ceremonies, and closing festivities at Yankee Stadium, for the Gay Games.

To help defray the costs of traveling to New York, Cheer Dallas held two fund-raisers, both of which have since become annual events: a New Year's Eve party and a fund-raiser at the Dallas World Aquarium, the proceeds from both of which benefit community organizations engaged in the battle against AIDS.

Cheer Dallas was the darling of the Gay Games, says Phil Johnson, a board member of Team Dallas and self-described "No. 1 fan" of Cheer Dallas. "They were magnificent. We were the only team with their own cheerleading squad. Not only are they talented athletes, they're so outgoing, energetic, and happy, everyone loves to be around them."

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