Bigger and better, BearDanceis now about more than the pursuit of the hirsute

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BearDance is growing up right in front of our very eyes. From its origins in a generic warehouse space to the dance floor of Station 4, the nonprofit event started out as a way to celebrate the burly and the beats. Today, it’s a staple part of Texas Bear Round-Up weekend and a perpetual fundraiser for area nonprofits.

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of BearDance, but the team putting it together — which includes Jake Briscoe, Kevin Click, Paul Crisantes, Jared Wilson, treasurer Ami Sadeh and president Mark Trimble — are already blowing up the celebration with a slew of guest DJs and marquee performers this year.

Do a little dance? Have a little fun? No. BearDance is anything but “little” — especially this year.  

“We’ve never had more than one special guest, and then this many guests in total,” Mark Trimble says. “Why not go a little bigger?”

As part of its lollapalooza, BearDance: Inferno will feature drag performer Varla Jean Merman and queer rapper Cazwell. Four DJs will set the mood on the main floor and upstairs.

“We’re taking the party in two directions,” Trimble adds in regards to TBRU’s fireman theme. “We are calling our party Inferno to encourage the fireman dress but upstairs we are going for a more Dante’s Inferno/hellfire vibe.”

For that, the board enlisted DJs Decoding Jesus and New Dad for a grittier, darker vibe. For the more festive side on the main dance floor, circuit DJ John LePage makes his return after a slight hiatus, with Dallas’ own Ryan Tiffin opening.

But underneath all the sexy fun and fur beats a big heart. BearDance has become a two-pronged approach to goodwill both personally and publicly. This year’s beneficiaries include AIN, the Greg Dollgener Memorial AIDS Fund and the Sharon St. Cyr Fund.

“That’s always exciting, to raise money for the entire community,” Sadeh says.

On the other side of that, the event has always been intended as a safe space. The guys know not everyone is comfortable amid a dance floor of glistening ripped abs and 28-inch waists.

“The term has recently come into vogue but we’ve always been about body positivity,” Trimble says. “We love seeing everyone take off their shirt and be happy. We are all loved, and we just reassure that you are someone’s cup of tea.”

The queen

While drag has risen to new heights of popularity thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, Varla Jean Merman built her cred long before social media, viral videos and sassy memes.

Jeffery Roberson gave birth to Merman sometime in the ’90s. He would only say she’s the same age as Britney only more grown up — or maybe he meant himself.

“Varla and me started out as the same person — irresponsible and drunk,” Merman says from his New Orleans home. “I hope I’ve grown up because the things that are cute at 28 aren’t so cute now.”

Although Merman gained a fanbase barking around Provincetown to get people to her show, her movie debut in Girls Will Be Girls cemented her drag icon status. Roberson shrugs it off, though.

“I’ve been called a legend but they just really mean old ladies,” he laughs. “The world has changed for drag. Drag Race changed that, which is great, but now people just want to take photos and not actually watch them perform.”

But Merman has gathered a bear following and is ready to perform a sort-of greatest hits performance from his recent show Wonder Merman.

“I love the bears. They are out to have a good time. There is a lot of acceptance and no attitude or weirdness,” Roberson says. ”I have no idea though why Varla has such a bear following.”

Regardless of the fact that he’s a solid muscle daddy (look it up on Instagram), he attributes it more to getting older.

“I think it’s my really hairy forearms? I’ve gotten hairier as I’ve gotten older. If I start shaving I’d look like a plucked chicken. That’s why all you see now is my face and neck and hands,” he says.

Roberson is also a virgin — or perhaps Varla is. Either way, this is the first round-up type appearance Varla Jean Merman has done, and she is ready.

“Come and see! There’s going to be a lotta shit you’ve never seen before and maybe never see again,” she says.

The stud

Cazwell has made a music career of mixing sexy with provocative. From his 2006 debut All Over Your Face to his signature hits “Rice and Beans” and “Ice Cream Truck,” his songs are laced with in-your-face innuendos and plenty of single- and double-entrendres. Recently though, he’s unveiling a whole new side.

In 2017’s “Loose Wrists,” amid lyrics about orgies and “daddy” moans, he declares We about to make America fem again and Hit the White House/ Rearrange some things. He teamed with Drag Race season nine contestant Peppermint this year for an EP release “Blend,” which also became an immediate trans anthem. Simply put, Cazwell got woke.

“It’s definitely the time. Ever since he became president, I feel like I live in an alternate reality,” he says from a Los Angeles cafe. “All these things are happening. He doesn’t support gay rights. It’s shitty the way trans people are treated in the military. We have someone in charge who wants to take everything away. It’s impossible to be gay and not resist. Pride is more important than ever now.”

Along with some added perspective to his club-ready music, he’s dabbled in fashion recently and started his own label Snow Cone. He’s navigating his very independent music career on his own terms.

“I just wanna do what interests me and have my hand in as many pockets as possible,” he says. “I like having my own label because I can put out music on my own schedule.”

As for the bears, he admits he isn’t sure what the connection is between the demographic and him. “They’ve always been in my audience, but I have no idea how we connected,” he says.  In mid-thought, he may have figured it out. “I talk about food a lot in my songs and bears like food,” he says.

The DJs

John LePage has spun before at BearDance, so he’s no stranger to the event or circuit events in general. But this audience resonates just a little more with him.

“I don’t play any different just because it’s a bear event versus different kind of gay event,” he says. “When it comes to the crowd though the fact that it’s a bear event is very special to me because the bear crowd is my crowd, so it’s definitely special.”

He’s ready to see the bears fill the floor and dance to his tracklist because that’s what fuels him to push his set to the limit.

“It’s a huge sense of gratification to see people letting their guard down and just let the music move them,” he says. “I respond to the dance floor.”

Part of his response will be one track he’s likely waiting to drop on the bears. Without details, he announced he will premier a new remix at Inferno.

Michael Brodeur AKA New Dad from Houston will open the upstairs dance party with his deep house and techno beats, but expect him to paint a picture as well.

“I’m a grown-up shoegaze kid, so I love big, colorful washes of noise that help smudge everything together,” he says. “At BearDance I’ll be moving in between a DJ set and some live performance and improvisation. I’ve been working on music lately inspired by bathhouses — long-form poly-rhythmic stretches that screw with your sense of time and put you in the bone zone.”

He’ll come to his set armed with a DJ arsenal that includes a sampler, synth and drum machines to enhance his set. Whatever happens, he’s ready to get the bears’ groove on and welcomes the prospect of the darker upstairs vibe.

“I’m much more comfortable in a small room environment where people might be hungry for unexpected vibes,” he says. “A common complaint I hear from folks is that bears don’t dance, but that hasn’t been true in my experience. You just gotta rub ‘em the right way.”