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STRIPPERS TAKE A STAND AGAINST LAP DANCING

STRIPPERS TAKE A STAND AGAINST LAP DANCING

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Wearing a sleeveless cream gown and spike-heeled shoes that are a size too big, Julie meanders through crowds of men at the strip club Pure Platinum.

In one hand, the 23-year-old Buffalo woman clutches her wallet; in the other, a brown, fringed towel -- "a bib," she calls it.

It takes only a few minutes for a clean-cut 20-something customer in khaki shorts and a polo shirt to notice the beautiful brunette and say:

"Do you wanna dance?"

The question, when posed at the Canadian Ballet -- the euphemism used to describe the north-of-the-border strip clubs so popular with Western New Yorkers -- usually refers to a tangle instead of a tango.

The man has requested a lap dance, a popular pas de deux among strip club patrons, a lucrative enterprise for willing exotic dancers and one of the most controversial legal activities in Canada.

At $20 (American or Canadian) a song, the lap dance looks more like an impromptu bump and grind than a choreographed performance. Usually taking place in either small, private cubicles or dimly lighted lounges near the bar, it involves a nude or scantily clad dancer gyrating on the lap of her customer, who is clothed.

Like many dancers, Julie permits clients to touch her legs, buttocks and breasts. She usually tells them she's placing the towel across their laps so their pants won't chafe her thighs. In truth, she's trying to avoid germs from previous dancers -- or the customer's semen.

When she began crossing the border to strip two years ago, Julie -- not her real name -- assumed she would reap the profits of voyeurism. She would dance on stage or at tables, collect her wages and head home.

She hadn't heard about this dance craze.

"I was petrified," she says of the first time she lap danced. "You feel so violated," she adds, gritting her teeth. "I swore I would never come back."

But lap dancing paid the bills, so she returned. Although she prefers the $5 table dance -- a hands-off performance at a client's table -- lap dancing has eclipsed that kind of visual titillation.

But the lap dance may be on its last lap.

Next month the Crown will appeal the landmark 1994 Ontario Court decision that legalized touching between customers and exotic dancers, and ruled that a range of physical contact -- from fondling buttocks to oral sex -- did not violate community standards of decency. (Most border clubs discourage anything more than touching; Toronto clubs are more liberal.)

Crown attorneys maintain that what happened at Cheaters, the North Toronto tavern named in the suit, was prostitution:

"The table dancers (now known as lap dancers) offered to 'dance' for patrons, performed acts to excite them which resulted in their sexual gratification, following which the patrons paid for the services," the brief says.

"I believe it amounts to some form of prostitution -- men are paying money to touch women -- but that's up to the courts to decide," says Sgt. Harry Nesbit of the Niagara Regional Police Service vice unit.

Adds Gary Nichols, superintendent of the police's district that covers Fort Erie and Niagara Falls:

"Community standards are changing on us. What is considered unacceptable at one time becomes acceptable a little later."

Nikki Nelson takes a drag from her cigarette in one of the cramped lap dancing booths at Maxine's, a Fort Erie club whose parking lot is filled with New York license plates.

On the wall behind Ms. Nelson a notice dated June 2 reads: "Effective immediately, please be advised that any dancer participating in sexually explicit acts, i.e. masturbation, will be terminated immediately."

A burly doorman peeks in the room every five minutes or so to make sure the dirty dancing doesn't get out of hand.

But Ms. Nelson is only talking. She's a "clean dancer" -- one of a dying breed of exotic entertainers who refuses to lap dance.

"I would sooner collect social services than lap dance," says Ms. Nelson, 25. "I could not do that and come home and face my husband and daughter."

Once upon a time, she remembers, men with $20 to spare spread the wealth among four table dancers. Now they choose one lap dancer and head straight for the V.I.P. lounge.

"Now we're getting 19-year-olds who feel they have to go the extra mile to get the money," she says. "Then they get the money and get addicted to drinking and drugs. It's really sad."

To survive in this brazen new world, once a week Ms. Nelson migrates to a club north of Toronto that prohibits lap dancing.

"Men (at the lap dancing clubs) don't speak to you like ladies anymore," she says, adding that Western New Yorkers account for about 85 percent of the border clubs' business. "I'm hard-pressed to call some of the girls 'ladies' anymore.

"I'm just waiting for Sept. 18," she says, referring to the appeal date. "I'm fairly confident that lap dancing's going to go. If it doesn't, I'm open to leaving in a second."

A Southern Ontario club manager says the dance doesn't translate to better business.

"The men save it all for the lap dance, so they don't spend anything at the bar," she says, adding that the lap dance attracts a mostly 30-and-over crowd.

"I feel they should get rid of it because it has caused a lot of exotic dancers to stop working, and it has caused conflict between the dancers who do it and the ones who don't."

But she disagrees that the dance has brought prostitution from the streets to her strip club.

"I think that's exaggerated," says the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We don't have sex going on. We have had a few hookers posing as dancers, but you can tell pretty quickly who's a dancer and who's not."

Katharine Goldberg used to dance at Filmores in Toronto. Now she writes letters to politicians, marches at protests, meets with health officials and heads the Association for Burlesque Entertainers, a group of about 100 opponents of the lap dance.

"We were just supposed to be a visual fantasy. We weren't supposed to (sexually) please these men," says the 31-year-old mother of three. "It seems now that society has set up a place for men to have a quick fix. There should be no touching in the clubs whatsoever."

In May, Ms. Goldberg took her story -- one of almost daily sexual assaults from her lap dancing partners -- to Toronto newspapers. When her photo appeared in the Toronto Star her employer told her not to return to work.

"This is a high-risk activity," says Ms. Goldberg, who is married. "You have many men with the same girl."

The Ontario ministry of labor agrees, having recently deemed lap dancing a potential health hazard because it can lead to the spread of infectious diseases to a stripper.

A hazard? Recipients of the lap dance sound like they're describing a trip to Fantasy Island.

"It's fun," says a newlywed, a former Buffalo resident whose stag party in May introduced him to the lap dance scene. "For me it was a rite of passage I had to go through so I could get on with the rest of my bachelor party."

Another advocate, a married Buffalo salesman in his 40s, buys three or four lap dances a year.

"It's a contact sport," says the salesman, who agreed to be interviewed if his name was withheld. "I find it to be fairly harmless fun. Some girls don't let you touch them below (the waist), but for others it's open season."

The man says most dancers state before the dance what contact is permitted and what is off-limits. He has seen dancers "just get up and scream" at men who misbehave. But the presence of bouncers in most lounges usually discourages such unwanted advances, he adds.

"The dancer has made a choice to do this. In that case she's gotta know that once in a while someone's going to go beyond what she wants.

"Nobody's making them go there and dance and make thousands of dollars a week." (When she's a "house girl" -- or regular dancer -- at Mints, Ms. Nelson brings home about $400 a week and pays the club a $25-per-day floor fee. In comparison, she says, a lap dancer's take-home pay hovers at about $1,000 a week.)

The businessman's last comment?

"I hope they don't cancel it."

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