Lap Dances Find Academic Champion as Cities Rein in Strip Clubs

Judith Hanna
Judith Hanna, a University of Maryland anthropologist who specializes in the study of dance. Hanna is a frequent expert witness defending strip clubs from local government regulation. Source: Judith Hanna via Bloomberg

Judith Hanna, a 75-year-old grandmother and anthropology professor, spent an afternoon in 2005 on a beach in Jacksonville, Florida, photographing women’s swimsuited backsides.

Hanna, who has spent almost 50 years studying the cultural expression of dance, called the fieldwork “interesting.” Her pictures, meant to demonstrate local enthusiasm for exposed flesh, became evidence in a nightclub’s fight against an ordinance requiring strippers to better cover their derrieres. Since 1995, Hanna, a University of Maryland researcher, has helped clubs repel efforts to tax, regulate or close them, arguing more than 100 times that striptease is just as much an art as ballet.

Next year, her lap-dances-are-art argument will be part of an appeal before New York’s highest court. A stripper in heels is like a ballerina en pointe, she says, and her communication of feeling is no different than that of the New York City Ballet -- and no less protected by the First Amendment.

“Patrons of gentleman’s clubs aren’t just there to look at nude bodies,” Hanna, who lives in Bethesda, said in a telephone interview. “They want to read into it. It’s not just the eroticism, it’s the beauty of the body, and the fantasy they create.”

Hanna says she has observed at least 1,500 ecdysiastic performances in her defense of the $12 billion U.S. exotic-dance industry, which comprises about 4,000 clubs. When a city or state passes a law to kick the clubs out of town, owners turn to Hanna. She sends clients an average bill of about $3,000, and estimated that she has 45 wins to 21 losses.

Voice of the Industry

Hanna “plays a really important role in letting people see our side,” said Eric Langan, chief executive officer of Houston-based Rick’s Cabaret International Inc., which operates adult websites and clubs in Texas and Minnesota.

Opponents say her sophistry defends the indefensible.

“You can’t just trump the law by saying a naked dancer’s erotic message is protected by free speech,” said Scott Bergthold, a Chattanooga, Tennessee, attorney who helps municipalities craft and defend adult-business regulations. “We’re dealing with cases where cities are outlawing touching between naked dancers and customers that involve prostitution acts and she’s coming in with these opinions. It’s ridiculous.”

Hanna’s prominence has grown with the spread of stripping, Bergthold said in a telephone interview.

“The industry has exploded, and they’re now in towns and cities that 20 years ago didn’t have strip clubs,” he said.

‘Secondary Effects’

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed crime rates around clubs to be used as cause for regulation. This year, the Missouri Supreme Court and a federal appeals court in Ohio upheld laws against touching customers. The Texas Supreme Court upheld a $5 per customer tax on nude clubs that serve alcohol. The so-called secondary effects doctrine, which allows laws restricting activities regarded as protected expression so long as they are aimed at deleterious side effects such as crime, was applied in all three.

At trial, Hanna’s testimony is often accompanied by that of sociologists who dispute crime data as the industry recasts itself as classy entertainment.

“Sex, drugs and heavy drinking have been replaced by good-looking women, $300 chairs and bright lights,” said Langan whose company has a market capitalization of about $77.6 million and whose stock has outperformed the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index by almost 1 percentage point this year.

And there is nothing new under the bustier, Hanna said.

“Exotic dance has nudity and is marginalized and stigmatized for it,” Hanna said. “It’s really old hat. It’s in musicals, operas, and theater.”

Grace and Violence

The New Testament tells of Salome, who “danced and pleased” her stepfather Herod, the ruler of Galilee, and then asked for John the Baptist’s head. Herod sent an executioner.

Vaslav Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” ballet sparked a riot when its depiction of fertility rituals debuted in Paris in 1913.

“Exotic dance shares with virtually all dance genres the fact that it is a purposeful, intentionally rhythmical, culturally patterned, nonverbal, body movement communication in time and space,” Hanna writes in “Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy and a Christian Right,” to be released next year. It “conveys meaning by the use of space, touch, proximity to an observer, nudity, stillness and specific body movements.”

Preparing Temptation

Stripping can transcend the carnal, said Toni Bentley, an author who danced for choreographer George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet before a hip injury ended her career.

“It’s hard to make the argument that just thrusting your pelvis is art,” Bentley said in a telephone interview. “You have a much better chance at doing something beautiful with work and preparation.”

The key to eroticism is careful planning, said Jennifer McCumber, 28, a retired stripper who runs a website from her Houston home where she teaches business concepts to dancers.

“To make a lap dance work, I had to combine concepts from gymnastics, things I learned from pole dancing, belly dancing I learned in college and even martial arts,” McCumber said in a telephone interview. “You have to have physical and mental agility to perform, while also making it seductive and alluring.”

Choreography is at the heart of the case in New York, where a club in Latham, near Albany, is arguing that most of its sales should be tax-free because of the state’s exemption for entrance fees to “dramatic or musical art performances.”

‘Stunningly Sweeping’

Andrew McCullough, a lawyer for Nite Moves, gave the court videos that dancers use to “adapt new techniques into their choreography.” And he hired Hanna to “get the message across” to the Tax Appeals Tribunal, he said.

It didn’t get there.

“To accept Dr. Hanna’s stunningly sweeping interpretation of what constitutes choreographed performance, all one needs to do is move in an aesthetically pleasing way to music,” tribunal Commissioners Carroll Jenkins and Charles Nesbitt wrote in their April 2010 ruling against the club.

The case is headed to the New York Court of Appeals, which said in October it will hear arguments next year.

In 2002, Bentley, the former ballet dancer, published “Sisters of Salome,” a study on early 20th Century strippers. As research, Bentley did a striptease of her own at a New York City club.

“There’s no definition to art and it’s eternally debated,” Bentley said. “Like the Supreme Court with obscenity, I know it when I see it. And from going to all kinds of strip clubs, some of it is and some of it is not.”

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