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The Dallas Nightclub Where BDSM Meets Burning Man

Jeff Gage

Freaky local subcultures find a home at The Nines after the loss of many DIY spaces in the city.

Photos by Mark Kaplan

As Claira Bell, wearing little more than a corset and underwear, climbs on stage at a nightclub in Dallas, Texas, a man in a white mask and black top hat issues a warning to the crowd. "Our next performer," he says mischievously, with the wag of a finger, "gets a little out of control."

Bell, the headlining performer of the club's monthly Abnormal Formal fetish event, carries with her a tray filled with candles, balloons, a butane lighter, a staple gun, and an ice pick. One by one, she removes the objects from the tray.

First comes the ice pick. She tilts back her head and, with "Sucker for Pain" by Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, and Imagine Dragons playing in the background, inserts it up her nostril. Having removed her corset, she uses a staple gun to fasten blown-up balloons into her abdomen. Finally, Bell takes the candles, which are attached to long needles, and sticks them through the flesh of her forearm. Then, she lights the candles and uses them to burst the balloons, which explode with glitter.

Allen Falkner and his wife Courtney Crave at Abnormal Formal

This is, to the most part, a perfectly normal Saturday night at The Nines—a club in Deep Ellum, the primary entertainment district of Dallas, Texas. The Nines is co-owned by Allen Falkner who, with assistance from his wife, Courtney Crave, also hosts the fetish night where Bell performed.

Falkner, 48, is a man of many hats: He's been a professional body piercer since his early 20s, and across the street from the club is Fade Fast, his tattoo removal shop. But most people around the city know him as the man who helped popularize body suspension—a form of body modification in which people are suspended in the air by hooks inserted in their flesh—in the 90s and early 2000s. Falkner's suspension work earned him TV appearances on Ripley's Believe It or Not (twice) and Mindfreak, where he hung up Criss Angel for a stunt in 2005.

Falkner was a minority owner of the bar's previous incarnation, a more straight-ahead dance club called Red Light Lounge, which was open for just under two years. But last September, when he took over a majority stake in the bar as well as day-to-day operations, he relaunched it as The Nines. He also decided to program events that appealed to his interests, filling the venue's calendar with suspension, bondage, burlesque, cosplay, Burner, and dance music parties.

Allen Falkner

Lounging on one of the black leather sofas in the lobby of Fade Fast late one afternoon in May, Falkner tells me that this unusual hodge-podge of subcultures is rarely found in other clubs around Texas. "A place like New York, you have burlesque shows every night of the week. San Francisco, you're going to find goth industrial nights everywhere," he says. On the other hand, he continues, "it's not that Dallas doesn't have any weird or strange culture. At the same time, it's not as accessible as other cities."

Freakier nightlife subcultures, including less mainstream forms of dance music, have typically been confined to underground venues in Dallas. But those have become harder to come by in the past year and a half. Beginning on New Years Eve in 2015, Dallas' fire marshal has shut down a number of local DIY spots for code violations, lack of certificates of occupancy, and other reasons—leaving a dearth of affordable arts spaces in the city.

One group that's found a home at The Nines is the local suspension community. Falkner was first introduced to suspension when he lived in California in the late 80s and early 90s by performance artist and body modification expert Fakir Musafar.

In 1992, Falkner established an organized suspension group called Traumatic Stress Discipline. Nine years later, he founded SUSCON, which he claims was the world's first suspension convention. Today, SUSCON is a six-day event held at multiple venues in Dallas with speakers, classes, suspensions for advanced practitioners, movie screenings, and nighttime parties.

A SUSCON attendee suspended from an aerial tress on the roof of The Nines in 2016

Several of this year's SUSCON events took place at The Nines in April, and, until his scheduling demands recently made it impractical to continue, the club hosted monthly suspension meets that were open to the public.

"I can't say we're the only [club] in the United States [to host suspension events], but I'd say we're probably among a select few," says Falkner. "There are probably venues that do it more regularly, but it's definitely more underground. It's not quite a public thing like we have done."

John Eaves, one of Falkner's business partners, and himself an active member of the suspension community, concurs. "Having a commercial business that's comfortable with having hook suspension performed there at all is kind of rare," he explains. "It's a weird liability to begin with. Getting someone who understands it, and is attracted to the idea of having it in their club, is pretty rare."

Covered in tattoos and piercings, Falkner says he was weaned on punk bands like Butthole Surfers and Dead Kennedys, but was drawn to dance music in part for what he sees as its similarly DIY sensibilities.

He refers to an upcoming show by Australian-born, Berlin-based DJ and singer Anklepants: "He's known for is wearing a mask that has an animatronic dick nose that moves with his music. It's a very bizarre, very, very cool act." Falkner says Anklepants is the perfect example of how he hopes to bring together dance music with obscure forms of entertainment and performance art.

Falkner rotates from hooks at SUSCON in 2016

Dallas DJ Chase Dugger, whose background is as a DJ in the burner community, has been in charge of The Nines' music programing since the beginning of the year. Dugger first worked with Falkner for Falkner's Freaks and Fetishes event in 2014, then held at the Lizard Lounge, a Dallas club owned by The Nines' other business partner, Don Nedler.

Performers at the suspension, fetish, and burlesque events typically play their own music selections—Falkner reckons Tool is the most popular choice for suspension acts—so Dugger books DJs to perform between acts. He also hosts a weekly Thursday night event with a DJ crew he's a part of called The Lowdown.

Dugger makes a point of trying to showcase local DJs, along with live electronic or noise acts. "I've noticed the DJs [at suspension events] go a little bit more out-there [with their song selections] than they would if the people were only there to listen to music," he notes. "Usually the DJs are pretty excited; it's not the typical dance party that they're used to."

Honey Cocoa Bordeauexx, a Dallas burlesque dancer who's been performing for 10 years, hosts a monthly at The Nines called Vintage Cocktail Hour, which caters to fans of pinup and rockabilly culture, and takes place the same night as The Lowdown. "My crowd stays around and hangs out with [The Lowdown] crowd," she says. "For someone involved in any type of subculture, [The Nines] is a good place to hang out and feel at home and be yourself."

The club brings together all kinds of people who might not fit in elsewhere in Dallas, Bordeauexx continues. "These communities tend to have people who are very open minded, free spirited," she says over the phone. "I might not be a cosplayer, but we both wear costumes—we can dance and dress up and understand what each other does."

Chase Dugger (left) is the musical programmer at The Nines

Running a club like The Nines has its challenges. Falkner has learned that many off-beat parties don't attract enough people to be held on a regular basis, and has introduced more traditional events like trivia and Sunday burlesque brunch in order to keep the room full.

There are also restrictions imposed by the city and local community to what events at The Nines are allowed to do. The Nines' suspension parties take place on their rooftop, where there's a large, open-air tress installed, and only happen at night. "We have to be careful because it's been made clear that suspension is not welcome during family hours," says Falkner, laughing. "We're not exactly everyone's favorite place in the neighborhood, but we're also not unwelcome."

Due to state liquor laws, the club also has to enforce rules like no exposed nipples or genitalia. Falkner brings up the rope subset of the bondage community, who he says moved to The Nines after the fire marshal also shut down their regular spaces. "They like to get tied up naked. Fantastic. I would love to have naked people tied up in my club. But I can't," Falkner says ruefully.

Despite these limits, a night at The Nines never fails to thrill. Back at Abnormal Formal, Bell eventually returns to the stage for a second performance, this time with a metal plate wrapped around her stomach. Smiling, she leans into a sharp metal grinder, shooting sparks off into the crowd.

Jeff Gage is on Twitter