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Nude dancer says strip-club rules invasive, unnecessary

"It reduces our job to a gyrating backdrop."

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Since Pittsburgh City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith introduced legislation to regulate where adult-entertainment businesses go, and what can -- and can't -- go on in them, she's heard from both supporters and critics. But one group hasn't been part of the conversation so far.

"The only people I'd feel more comfortable hearing from is the dancers," Kail-Smith says. "I wish they'd feel more comfortable to speak."

Smith's legislation, after all, would require dancers and other strip-club workers to obtain licenses and submit to background checks. The legislation could also affect dancers' earning power. It would, among other things: ban nude performances; prohibit direct tipping; enact a 6-foot "buffer zone" between customers and dancers; and end private-room sessions in which dancers performed for customers out of public view.

As City Paper reported in June, dancers have been hesitant to speak publicly about Kail-Smith's bill. In fact, Kail-Smith says, only one has contacted her to discuss it.

The woman, who asked to be identified as "Michelle," has been an exotic dancer for 13 years at a handful of local clubs, and opposes Smith's proposal. 

 "It reduces our jobs to gyrating backdrops," she tells City Paper.

Dancing nude two nights a week, Michelle says, nets her nearly $250 a night, after transportation and the upfront fee dancers pay to club owners. By contrast, when she used to dance in a g-string and pasties earlier in her career, Michelle says, her take-home pay averaged only about $70. 

Michelle also fears the ramifications of the licensing requirements. She works a day job and currently dances part time, unbeknownst to her friends and family.

"Public opinion universally vilifies us," she says. "I could never let my family know. 

"There's so much negative publicity because of things like this legislation that treats dancers like sex offenders. It feels like a sex-offender registry."

Michelle asserts dancers are in "100 percent control" of what they do at the clubs and that interaction with the patrons -- something Smith's legislation would sharply curtail -- prevents objectification. "I don't think appreciating the way someone looks is necessarily a bad thing," she says. 

The customers "want to talk to someone … and be asked questions. They're there for that interaction. … They're looking for a real person rather than a caricature of a person."

Kail-Smith and blogger Bram Reichbaum say they are tweaking the bills based on input from the industry, community and, hopefully, dancers themselves. Reichbaum originally presented Kail-Smith with both the idea for the legislation and research on "secondary effects," or the undesirable activity that can spill out from a club.

Smith has already removed the "60-minute rule," which would have prohibited dancers from mingling with patrons for an hour after performing. Reichbaum says the rule "wasn't easily enforceable."

Reichbaum acknowledges other components could be removed, like the licensing component and a ban on direct tipping. The size of the buffer zone might also change. "With the no-contact and no-private-room rules, it might make it safe enough. We don't have to be as heavy-handed," Reichbaum says. 

The bill is motivated largely by concern over secondary effects. Reichbaum says certain components of the legislation are "to avoid surreptitious prostitution," for example.  

The zoning provisions, meanwhile, are meant to shore up the city's legal position in contending with clubs. Currently, adult-entertainment venues must seek approval from city officials to locate anywhere in the city. That ordinance has been the subject of lawsuits charging that it allows city officials to violate club-owners' rights. The HDV-Hustler club in Chateau, for example, successfully challenged the city's right to deny approval. The city is currently appealing a judge's approval for a proposed club in Kail-Smith's West End. Residents in Overbrook, meanwhile, are worried about the planned re-opening of the Butta Bing club, on Route 51. 

Under the legislation, adult entertainment would be permitted -- without special approval from elected officials -- in the city's general and urban industrial districts (UI). 

Pittsburgh City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL

Reichbaum says he presented the idea to Smith after seeing the city lose legal challenges; having the rules spelled out in the zoning code would be "a heck of a lot better than the system we have now," he says.

Still, he adds, any new strip club "is going to be a concern anywhere it is."

For example, many of the riverfront properties along the South Side are zoned UI -- among them parcels near the upscale South Side Works development. Also zoned industrial are properties between South 11th and South 27th streets, south of Edwards Way. Under Kail-Smith's proposal, clubs could be placed within a few blocks on either side of Carson Street's already frenetic bar scene.

"Why would we want to use prime riverfront property to house adult entertainment?" asks Bruce Kraus, the city councilor whose District 3 includes the area. The zoning change "would have to change drastically for me to consider it."

"Our intention isn't to impact one district over another," Kail-Smith says. "Our intention is to have safe areas where they conduct their businesses."

Other councilors seem less resistant.

"I'm open to this," says Doug Shields, who represents Squirrel Hill and adjoining areas. "Opening an adult-entertainment facility with nude dancers, male or female, doesn't bother me." What does bother him, he says, is that sometimes clubs "are not what they seem," and can be fronts for illegal activity. 

The owner of the former Bare Elegance, for example, was convicted of tax evasion; the club eventually shut down. "I would not have a problem voting for an ordinance that [regulates] conduct of a business," Shields says. "We do that every day."

Kail-Smith's bills are currently awaiting public hearings and discussion by council and city planners. In the meantime, Kail-Smith says she's been meeting with industry reps from venues like Club Pittsburgh, Cheerleaders and Blush Gentlemen's Club, whose input she pledges to take into consideration.

Jeff Levy, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Hospitality and Entertainment Association, says his association has started doing fact-finding "to see if the information [Kail-Smith] has is constitutionally sound. Is it accurate and does it hold up the legal standards?

 "We can't have people who know nothing about industry making the rules," Levy adds.

Louis Caputo, the attorney for Blush, says the club plans to review the legislation and give line-by-line comments. Cheerleaders has also submitted feedback, though its owners declined comment

"I'm going to look at everything," Kail-Smith says. "We're not trying to shut anyone down."

 "We appreciate the fact that she sat down with us and opened up the lines of communication," Caputo says. "I think we're a long ways away, but that's a good start. Certainly we have more concerns … than the [provisions] taken out."

So does Michelle, the dancer, who contends that other performers would leave the city if Kail-Smith's bill passed as is. 

"Every single one has said, ‘I won't work in Pittsburgh anymore,'" she says. "These people have been working at these clubs for years. They feel safe. They have a good clientele built up and they'd have to give that all up."

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