You truly can find anything among the weekend chaos in Deep Ellum. On Main Street, you can watch an acrobatic performer suspend from the ceiling, inviting you in through a street-facing front window of a club called The Nines. These artists are known as aerialists, and they perform suspended in the air, usually spinning, in a metal apparatus that can resemble a circle, sphere, cube or moon. And The Nines is one of the the only places in Dallas that employs them on a weekly basis.
The Nines had aerialists in mind since it opened in 2016. Formerly Red Light, current owner Allen Falkner rebranded the two-story space to fit an eclectic and accepting culture. Red Light was a dance club where DJs focused on EDM music. Now, the space cultivates a vast range of genres, in addition to entertainers.
“The whole aerial idea was pretty much from the beginning,” Falkner says, sitting in a tight circle of folding chairs in the bar’s green room. Falkner is a suspension artist who popularized the practice in North America, and is thus known as "the father of modern suspension." His wife Courtney Crave is an international model, burlesque dancer and aerialist.
“I wanted a way to showcase the performances that I do,” Crave says of their establishment. Aside from her solo performances, the couple often perform together in suspension acts, which entails having one's body hang in the air, rigged with multiple hooks, usually on the back.
“We’re kind of weird — so we want people to be able to do their weird shit here,” Crave says.
On the bar’s rooftop patio sits a 10-foot-tall shiny metal truss that was sturdily built for aerial artists. The truss safely suspends artists as they spin against a backdrop made up of the Dallas skyline, while the chorus of Deep Ellum nightlife echoes around them. Recently, however, due to intermittent weather issues and a lack of physical barriers between patrons and performers — the silver stage had to be pulled.
“People were just too close and touching (aerialists) and such, it was kind of a safety issue,” Falkner says. He explains that when aerialists performed on the roof, bar patrons would sometimes get too personal, in what is often expected behavior in club settings — drunk people crossing boundaries. “I had a girl come up and grab my boob while I was in hanging upside down," Crave recalls of one event.
Other performers offer similar stories. “Someone tried to put some money into my attire while I was spinning,” aerial instructor Aerial Red says with a laugh. “My foot actually hit them in the side of the head.”
The Nines' aerialists usually perform in sexy, tight-fitting outfits because it’s literally what they're most comfortable wearing, as it’s easier to move gracefully from one pose to another with less fabric in the way. “It’s just going to be something that covers your back and the back of your knees, so they don’t get trashed,” Red explains, adding that those are the two body parts that have the most contact with the metal.
Despite their attire, the aerialists sitting in the folding-chair circle insist they are artists and not exotic dancers, and they expect their audiences to behave respectfully. Their performances are dangerous, and any distraction could easily result in injury. For this reason, every aerialist at The Nines is covered with a specialty performers insurance to protect themselves and the establishment.
As the bar's performers have years of practice, they spin around with ease, which tricks drunk audiences into thinking that what they're doing comes easy.
“It’s not easy. You have to pace yourself,” Red says of the aerial artistry. “I’ve had several people come up to me and be like, ‘Can I have a turn?’”
Now these performances have been moved to the club's first floor, in front of the window, out of reach from unwanted prodding.
“It works out really well," Falkner says. "They have their own space, and while people are waiting to get in, they can see the aerialists through the window.” Crave adds, “And there’s something kind of fun about that throwback of having a private window dancer.”
Aerialists are also escorted to and from the stage by security staff. They perform during the high-traffic hours of 11 p.m. through 1.30 a.m., so they can leave before the 2 a.m. rush on the neighborhood's streets.
“They always have security nearby for our protection and our customers," says another aerial instructor, Luna Flor, of the venue. "It’s a very high-volume bar, and safety is of great importance. At the end of my shift I always can count on (employee) Spencer Baxter, the Dallas PD and Nines doorman crew to walk me safely to my car.”
The group agrees that it takes a great team effort to ensure performers' safety on a busy night in Deep Ellum. “Our bartenders are super amazing and take care of the girls for everything that they need,” Crave says.
Beyond bringing the performers indoors and away from intoxicated hands, The Nines has fashioned a safe place for artists of all kinds to exhibit their crafts.
“We want the aerialists to be able to feel like they have control and autonomy over the situation and, of course, to have fun,” Crave says. And if you ask the performers, they’ll agree.
“I really enjoy it. The Nines has given me an opportunity to enhance my performance skills in front of a crowd monthly,” Luna Flor says. Aerial Red expresses similar praise for the venue's work environment. “Allen’s really nice to work with," she says. "He checks the rigging for us, and that we’re happy. He’s not a taking manager; he’s very giving, which is awesome, because not all club owners are like that.”
With a rotating roster of zany variety events like Crave Cabaret, May May Graves’s Qweird, Honey Cocoa Bordeaux’s Vintage Cocktail Hour, Arty Dodger’s Ratatat Review, Kimber Fox’s Fetish Show and various drag shows, The Nines gives artists a platform to embrace their uncommon bits of performance art.
“If there’s a community that feels like they haven’t had a place to perform, like their kind of music couldn’t be played or their performance was a little too weird,” Crave says, “we want people to know they can come here and do that.”