The dance boom has taken an erotic twist this summer as British Columbians agonize over pole dancing classes for kiddies in Duncan and a New York strip club argues its tickets should be just as tax-free as the ballet's because lap dancing is an art.
Personally, I'd suggest that lap dancing is more of a craft than an art. But that's just the sort of dance critic-y argument that the fine judges of New York's appellate court are hoping to sidestep because, let's face it, no one wants to be forced to answer the eternal question, "What is art?"
Alas, it's inevitable that they will have to determine the difference between one naked, undulating dancer and another that makes the former art and the latter smut. That is if they want to ensure taxes are applied fairly. The charmingly named Nite Moves is pleading that it should be exempt from $124,000 in taxes-on-tickets for the same reason the New York City Ballet is exempt -- it's all just dance, and dance is art, ergo the state ought to support exotic dancers along with the tulle and pointe shoe set.
I'd pay to be a fly on the wall for their deliberations, as the honourable justices come to terms with the difference between ballerinas and sex trade workers. Just how, do you suppose, will they categorize all the terpsichoreans who fall somewhere between, including Vegas showgirls and Broadway gypsies. Many of them also benefit from the tax exemption.
But I believe the court's view will be handy in answering the wider question plaguing British Columbia's court of public opinion this month: Should one be signing up one's nine-year-old for pole dancing? Because if New York State thinks exotic dancers are artists, then maybe we can believe Duncan fitness studio owner Kristy Craig's claim that children will be getting a good workout rather than an introduction to the adult entertainment industry.
Dance's murky side
I don't envy those New York judges. Having spent a couple of decades as a dance critic, I can assure you it's no easy task explaining the difference between good art, bad art, and non-art. But as they say of porn: You know it when you see it.
Although my old pal and Tyee mast-mate Mark Leiren-Young was known to disagree. In our youth we were both critics at the same paper and he confessed to finding dance mystifying, so I invited him along to see shows with me. Nudity has been a feature of modern dance since the 1960s and it has influenced contemporary ballet's costuming (or lack thereof), which I doubt most dance watchers think much about.
Or rather I doubted it until Leiren-Young quipped: "Okay, I get it now: dance is just strip shows for the intellectual guys!"
Although startled at this idea, I conceded there might be some truth to it. (When it comes to the male mind I confess I'm often mystified, so I’m happy to bow to Mark's view on this.) But while dance can be erotic or even titillating it has much more to offer. Naked bodies can also be vulnerable, comic, or powerful depending on the choreographer's design. Put dancers in barely-there butoh garb -- thongs, white body make up and shaven heads -- and they become wraiths that evoke ideas of modern horrors in post-nuclear Japan.
I recall a piece by a brilliant, underrated Vancouver choreographer, Chick Snipper, whose completely naked dancers gave rise to images of corpses and ideas of death. These lovely young women may have given rise to other things too (I didn't poll the audience) but I doubt it. That wasn't what the piece was about.
I'd also suggest that most dancers are more likely to seduce when garbed -- even classical ballerinas. I've long thought that the very short, stiff tutus can have a slightly kinky sexiness depending on the choreography -- when a ballerina bends over the layers of tulle resemble a dartboard with her butt as the bull's eye. An observation that my long-suffering editors of the past would cut on the grounds that "we'll get letters." But in the age of pole dancing pre-teens I think it might be safe to mention it.
As much as I adore ballet, there's no denying its dark-and-twisted side -- it's an entire art form built on the notion of women as various forms of the living dead. Demented ghosts, birds of all sorts, dolls, vampires... and let's not get started on all the bondage imagery, beginning with pointe shoes. Come to think of it, why has no one come up with a zombie ballet? I'm looking at you Royal Winnipeg. Or perhaps Alberta Ballet would like to tackle the idea with one of the pop music scores they so love. Maybe Mission's Carly Rae Jepsen should step up, since she has a knack for terrifying songs that will not die.
Who gets to critique?
Regardless of how audiences interpret works of art there's no doubt choreographers build in layers of meaning to the extent their talent allows. Which, I would suggest, is not true of whoever cobbles together the bump-and-grind found at New York's Nite Moves -- although they argue they qualify as art because their routines are choreographed.
Here let me assure you that a choreographer being involved in no way guarantees the resulting performance is art. Have you seen So You Think You Can Dance?
But the nightclub's lawyer, a man blessed with apparently limitless chutzpah, also noted that the strip joint should be exempted from taxes because the performers are skilled and pole dancing is under consideration as an Olympic sport. (Given broadcasters' enthusiasm for the scantily clad women of beach volleyball I've no doubt the girls of the pole will soon be going for the gold rather than the pink.)
"The point is that the State of New York doesn't get to be a dance critic," Nite Moves' lawyer told the court.
He's wrong about that, of course. Every democratic state gets to be a critic the minute it enters the arts funding business. But governments define what constitutes art at arm's length, with artists appointed to decide who is part of their tribe. Still I think it’s fair to say that most of us know the difference between art that might be erotic and movement designed to turn women and children into sex toys.
Which is why the protests of the Duncan fitness studio owner and her cronies at the Pole Fitness Association (it really exists) that they're an art, or a sport, or just another fitness exercise ring hollow. Not least because in a televised demonstration of her pole prowess the clumsy Craig made it clear that comparing the banal act of sliding a pole to Cirque de Soleil is just as ridiculous as a strip club comparing itself to ballet.
Craig claims mothers who already worked the pole demanded a class for their pre-pubescents, and I don't doubt it. Pole dancing for girls probably appeals to the same sort of parents who dress their toddlers in thongs and T-shirts that say Porn Star. As the 2008 book The Porning of America points out, sexualizing children has become all the rage.
But just because those mummies are dummies doesn't mean the rest of us have to be. The logical-if-absurd conclusion of embracing porn culture as just another art is that soon you and I won't just be tolerating it, we'll be funding it. (If the Olympics admit pole dancing government sports grants will be automatic in many places.)
Think about it: the Nite Moves dispute is about a strip joint angling for tax exemptions granted the arts because democratic societies want them to flourish. If they win, it opens the door to pole dancing establishments claiming arts grants too.
Since judges study decisions from other jurisdictions, you can see how the views of New York's appellate court could have implications for us all. How long before the likes of Kristy Craig have set up their studios as non-profit schools competing with the National Ballet's baby bunheads for funding? When denied, you can bet they'll be launching lawsuits to end the discrimination because one democracy's court has ruled they're an art worthy of tax exemptions.
Which is why I'm so looking forward to the decision of the New York court setting limits. News stories have reported the amused judges needling the Nite Moves lawyer for invoking ballet in his argument, which suggests his suit is not likely to succeed.
As for kiddie pole dancing, I suppose that's between the parents and purveyors of such activities, but I think the business should be stopped from circulating ads featuring a tween on a pole. Sexualizing children may be fashionable, but it's not okay. Does that ad meet the test for child pornography on the Copine Scale, which includes photographing children in inappropriate situations? Possibly.
No matter how they protest that it's art or exercise -- which reminds me of contemporary white supremacists protesting that a swastika is just an ancient symbol that the Nazis misappropriated -- we all know what images of women sliding on poles signify.
If grown-ups want to play stripper that's their business, but when you put a child on a pole in a photo most of us feel a wave of revulsion.
As for those who don't know what they're seeing when they see it, well I guess that's why the courts are just so darned handy.
© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.