Stripping Away Free Expression
A Pennsylvania town tries-and fails-to ban a form of exercise.
Dressed in a low-cut pink shirt, tight black booty pants, and thick, plastic platform stilettos, Stephanie Babines doesn't look the part of a political rabble-rouser. Yet an activist is exactly what Babines became when her efforts to help women shape up through fully clothed, decidedly G-rated stripper-inspired aerobics ran afoul of overzealous officials in the small western Pennsylvania town of Mars. This unyieldingly perky 31-year-old entrepreneur, standing in the small forest of steel poles that shoot up from the floor of her mirrored dance and fitness studio, has taught dance-phobic authorities an expensive lesson in federal court.
"It's pretty surreal to get calls from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, never mind Dr. Phil, Jerry Springer, and America's Got Talent," Babines laughs, leaning back beneath a bookshelf filled with such revolutionary tomes as The World According to Mr. Rogers and The Housewife's Guide to the Practical Striptease. "It's not attention I went looking for."
A few years ago Babines was a senior executive at a financial services company, nary a feather boa dancing in her head, struggling with an 80-hour workweek that severely depleted her enthusiasm for the
gymnasium. One night over dinner a friend mentioned that pole dancing had become the hot new fitness trend. On a whim Babines purchased a pole online. "I thought it would be something silly to laugh about with my friends," she says, "until I started losing weight like crazy and fitting into cute jeans."
With the fire of a convert burning in her rapidly shrinking belly, Babines took a pilgrimage to the Las Vegas studio of fitness pole dancing's grand doyen, Fawnia Mondey, known more for her work in the instructional DVD Strip To It: Bump n' Grind than for her appearances in such postapocalyptic feature films as White Slave Lovers and Forbidden Rage: White Slave Secrets. Babines returned home as the first Pennsylvanian to hold one of Mondey's pole dance instructor certificates, signifying mastery of more than 60 moves and routines as well as basic first aid, should it ever be necessary to treat a client for excessive gyration.
Babines printed brochures and began teaching what quickly became overflow classes three nights a week at a local dance studio. Realizing she needed a place to stake her own pole(s), Babines rented space to pursue a more expansive, vampy fitness vision, including Power Lap Dance ("challenge your core and unleash your inner vixen!"), yoga, belly dancing, Hip Hop Aerobics ("learn the art of popping, locking, crunk, & funk"), and sessions with "Pittsburgh's only certified Hoopnotica Hoop Dancing Instructor."
Babines sank thousands into renovating her studio. The town inspector made mostly small requests light the exit sign, replace the furnace valve, and so on. But then she was blindsided by a subsequent letter declaring that the studio, which was christened Oh My You're Gorgeous, was an "adult business" ineligible for an occupancy permit. This was a perplexing pronouncement on a facility that forbade spectators and catered solely to fully clothed women.
Despite its cheeky name, the city of Mars isn't always amenable to cultural efforts perceived as alien. The "pink-and-black color scheme of Ms. Babines' website and the high-heeled shoe in her logo" were enough, according to court documents, to convince Code Enforcement Officer Gary Peaco to protect the community from these exercise classes.
"I've lived here my whole life, worked hard, paid my taxes, stayed out of trouble," Babines says. "I was shocked something I worked so hard for could be taken away over a misunderstanding, no questions asked."
Appeals to the zoning board went nowhere. Five students, including a devoutly Christian grandmother, spoke on their instructor's behalf. No one spoke against. Babines publicly invited board members to send their wives over for a workout. "One class with girls like me exercising in five layers of sweaty clothes, and the idea that this is an undercover strip club would have become hilarious to them," says Karen Nolan, a 25-year-old pole-exercise devotee and self-identified "ex-chunky monkey." All to no avail: Babines' two allotted appeals were denied. "Any sexual connotation, however mild, and some people suspect the worst," says another student, 47-year-old Tina Valeska. "The real story is a lot of women found an exercise program we could actually stick with. That wasn't sexy enough for their imaginations, I guess."
Legal bills piled up. Babines contemplated selling her house to continue the fight in state court. Desperate, she took a day off from work and drove to the Pittsburgh offices of the American Civil Liberties Union.
They didn't take walk-ins. It began to rain. Through tears Babines scribbled out a seven-page plea, stuffed it into the mail slot, and drove back to Mars demoralized, unaware that an ACLU lawyer would call that very afternoon or that she would soon have to warn her unsuspecting day job boss that one of his analysts was about to be outed on the A.P. wire as a crusader for strip-pole rights.
"We don't usually take on zoning cases, but look more closely and this really is a classic ACLU case," ACLU attorney Sarah Rose says. "Government officials were using the zoning code to crack down on the First Amendment–protected teaching of an expressive art they found controversial." Last August the ACLU filed a scathing complaint in federal court, comparing authorities in Adams Township, of which Mars is a borough, unfavorably to communists ("while a repressive country like China allows dance studios to teach pole dancing, the defendants in this small Butler County town have misapplied their zoning code to deny Ms. Babines her right to teach this new combination of art and sport to interested adult women") and requesting relief from "the pall of orthodoxy imposed by defendants on the people in their town who wish to communicate unconventional ideas."
The township folded. Babines had her occupancy permit by October. In February she was awarded $75,000 in damages and attorney's fees. The settlement forbids "peeping booths" and nudity, up to and including "the showing of the covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state." None of this, of course, was ever part of the program, but Babines doesn't mind codifying it. "If there's one thing I hope people take away from this, besides that they should stand up for their rights even if the situation seems hopeless," she says, "it's that women don't need to be naked in front of an audience of men to be hot or sexy or empowered."
Shawn Macomber (email@example.com) is a writer in Philadelphia.