Looking at the intersections of our bodies and the law: a new book by Dr. Judith Lynne Hanna
When I went to Barnes & Noble last month to hear a talk by Dr. Judith Lynne Hanna about her latest book, Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy, and a Christian Right, I had a moment of disconnect: is this petite, grey-haired, delicate woman the expert court witness in cases involving stripping and strip clubs?
She appeared to be the complete antithesis of images associated with exotic dancing. Rather than voluptuous and seductive she is tiny and scholarly, yet she recently produced a definitive text that examines the intersections of stripping, religion, and court cases. Her book is the culmination of close to two decades of visits to adult nightclubs, interviews with patrons, performers, and lawyers, and her own ceaseless advocating for the rights of the women – and men - who are exotic dancers.
Hanna’s interest in this topic was sparked by a 1995 case in which an attorney for a club in Washington state asked her to explain how Seattle’s imposition of an eight foot distance between patron and performer and amplifying the lighting in a strip club would infringe upon the dancers’ first amendment -- freedom of expression -- rights and adversely affect their jobs. As she became involved in these proceedings and in subsequent cases, Hanna discovered that a Christian church was behind the opposition to the dancing.
Any person who has read about the roots of dancing in America knows what early church goers – particularly the Puritans -- thought about this art form: dangerous, sinful, and could lead to compromising positions. What Hanna’s book does so brilliantly is to show how these ideas continue to percolate through religious and political groups. As she uncovered the strength and tactics of today’s Christian Right activists who continually attempt to prevent performers from dancing, this former high school civics teacher -- who has a master’s degree in political science and a doctoral degree in anthropology -- knew that she had found a subject she couldn’t ignore.
In Naked Truth she not only analyzes and assesses different forms of exotic dancing, but also goes into incredible detail about cases that involve strip clubs, police strategies, citizen actions, and local politicians. It is a timely read as another election approaches and a candidate has selected a vice president known for his ultra-conservative politics.
A couple weeks after her talk at Barnes & Noble I interviewed Hanna in her home in Bethesda and asked her about the greatest surprises she encountered while working on Naked Truth. She spoke about how beautifully trained many dancers were, graduates of professional dance and arts schools. When I mentioned that a close friend was an exotic dancer for many years and trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Hanna replied: “Yeah! Probably made a lot more money [than she did with concert dance companies]!”
Hanna also was impressed by the educational backgrounds of dancers she interviewed: rather than encountering the stereotypical “bimbo” dancers, many of the performers she spoke with held undergraduate and graduate degrees. “The variety really amazed me,” says Hanna. “I didn’t expect to find such smart people. In DC the three dancers I interviewed had master’s degrees and full-time jobs. Another surprise was the dancer who wasn’t necessarily the best mover, didn’t have the greatest figure, and was not pretty in a conventional way, but she was the biggest earner in the club. It’s because she knew how to talk to people and let them feel comfortable.”
Hanna also showed me email correspondence from dance scholars and educators who consider her subject matter offensive and who perpetuate the falsehoods Hanna debunks in Naked Truth. Caustic criticism came from dance educators. Hanna’s response to one of her critics was: “I’ve been pondering your statement that ‘Hanna has given the art of dance woeful blows.’ …There are so many different kinds of dance, I don’t know how discussion of a popular dance genre that has influenced high art gives ‘the art of dance woeful blows.’ In fact it has enriched it.”
Hanna often hears criticism from dance advocates like: “I have spent so many years trying to convince people that dance does not equal sex,” and “Art-making involves content, form, and skills. This is why we develop educational standards… The purpose of strippers and burlesque is hard core for a hard on. Strippers don’t need, and often don’t have, dance training beyond their ability to shake bootie.” Male patrons of the establishments described by Hanna vary: some come to talk and have a nonjudgmental listener, other patrons prefer to hang out with friends as they would at any other bar. Hanna adds that female patrons come for entertainment and, at times, to explore the possibility of dancing at such a venue. If critics of Hanna’s subject matter read her book they will see the errors in their words. Bodies have varied ways of communicating that are specific to certain contexts and audiences, yet many dance teachers perpetuate the misunderstandings spouted by religious conservatives, namely equating exotic dancing and sex.
To Hanna the most important aspect of her research is encouraging scholars and legal experts to recognize and support artistic expression. She quotes Nadine Strossen, former head of the ACLU in the final chapter of Naked Truth: “Once we cede to the government the power to violate one right for one person, or group, then no right is safe for any person or group. So when we defend sexual expression, we are really making a stand not only against a specific kind of censorship . . . but for human rights in general.”
Although she is based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, Hanna established herself as a scholar of dance through the publication of several books: To Dance is Human, The Performer-Audience Connection, and Dance, Sex, and Gender. Each is a nuanced perspective on a topic that draws together anthropological research and dance analysis. Naked Truth adds to her collection of works that shine light on areas of human communication that are difficult to articulate, but essential to consider.
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