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Exotic dancing - is it art?
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
March 4, 2002

The sex industry grows | Small towns react | The legal battle continues | Nicollet - the moral battleground | Exotic dance - is it art?

Is exotic dance an art form, and therefore protected by the First Amendment, as other art is?
(Photo: Copyright 1990-1998 by IMSI,

Since 1995, University of Maryland researcher Judith Hanna has frequently been called as an expert witness and has filed briefs on behalf of exotic dance clubs and exotic dancers around the country. She has testified a number of times in Minnesota. Hanna is the author of several books on dance and anthropology. Much of her testimony is devoted to establishing that exotic dancing is an art form, the same as other types of dance, and therefore worthy of a high level of protection from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"It's dance by the criteria that I would use for dances in Africa, children's playgrounds, American theaters," she says. "It's purposeful, it's intentionally rhythmical, it's patterned nonverbal body movement in time, space and effort. And it has an aesthetic: It has notions of what's appropriate and what's competent."

Hanna says exotic dancing suffers from the stereotype that it is a prelude to prostitution. Hanna disputes this perception, and says what happens on stage can be perceived in conventional terms.

"Just take Webster's Dictionary (definition) of what is art: learned skill, creative imagination, and communication. Exotic dance meets all those criteria," she says. "It's not an art form like ballet, which requires years of study and is very codified and has gradations of skill...but nonetheless it is a popular art form."

Expression and communication are at the core of First Amendment protection. Opponents of adult clubs raise the question of what, exactly, is being communicated. Hanna says the communication is rich and intense, even if it may not suit all tastes.

"The beauty of the body, the notion of the desirability of the female," Hanna says. "What is being communicated between patron and audience is that the dancer is essentially saying to the patron, 'You are desirable.' So there's an interaction that goes on between the dancer and the patron."

Hanna points out that dance is used in cultures worldwide to communicate human fantasy. Exotic dance, she says, is distinctive in that the dancer may use all five senses as part of the expression: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.

There are standards and traditions for things like costume; she draws a parallel, for example, between the toe shoes of a ballet dancer and the high heels of the exotic dancer. She disagrees with those who downplay the components of an artistic performance because they disapprove of the content.

"There is a stage, special lighting, special sound...there is an announcer, there are ushers, so it isn't all that different," she said. "It's this sense of, 'It's OK if it's a quiche-eating, wine-drinking audience, but if it's beer-drinking pretzel-eaters, it's not ok.' These distinctions, I think, have no understanding of what theater is in the 21st century."

Judith Lynne Hanna is the author of "Dance, Sex, and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance and Desire," "To Dance Is Human: A Theory of Nonverbal Communication," and other books on dance and anthropology. She is on the faculty at the University of Maryland.

More from MPR
  • Audio: Judith Hanna Listen to her interview with MPR's Jeff Horwich.