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The last lap?

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Times Staff Writer

The performer who calls herself Kitty has shaken a lot of tail-feathers in her time. She’s worked the circuit of L.A.’s big strip clubs -- Cheetahs, Spearmint Rhino, right up to her current employer, the Rio -- and she’s relied on nude dancing and lap dancing to see her through a teenage pregnancy, a rough divorce and the perils of single parenthood.

“Dancing and lap dancing also paid for my breast implants,” Kitty says with understated pride. She even remembers the bad old days, 15 or so years ago, when “the only place you could go for a lap dance was Gardena.” The tackiness! The tackiness!

But now Kitty -- who, like most nude dancers, prefers to be identified only by a first or stage name -- is struggling to find a sufficiently ladylike term to describe her feelings about a proposed L.A. City Council ordinance that would ban lap dancing from the city of fallen angels. In the most sweeping revision in decades of city codes governing adult businesses, the city is proposing to severely restrict what qualifies as legit behavior in L.A.’s estimated 200 adult cabarets, video arcades and other X-rated establishments. A council vote could come as soon as today.

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And while it’s not the only activity that would be curtailed under the new law, lap dancing is perhaps the most conspicuous and controversial. Talk radio hosts and a club attorney have railed against the proposed ordinance, while some city officials argue that lap dancing over the years has degenerated into a de facto form of prostitution.

“I think that’s a crock,” Kitty says. “The majority of us are not prostitutes. I’ve been clean and sober for years. Don’t get me wrong -- there’s always a bad apple in the bucket. But most of the women are like me. That goes for pretty much every girl here.”

Still, the question flickers like dry-ice fumes reflected in a twirling mirror ball: Is lap dancing a harmless act of flirtation between middle-aged men and young women who get paid to listen to them gab about their unsympathetic wives and dead-end jobs while persuading them they’re God’s greatest gift to the fair sex since Brad Pitt?

“I thought it was going to be really horrible, just like you read in all these articles,” says Madison, a tall, blond, ironic Texan who matriculates at one of L.A.’s top universities. But that was before she started moonlighting as an exotic performer at the Silver Reign in West L.A. Instead, she says, her profession is “easy, it’s really fun -- just talk to the guys, take their minds off work and stuff. It kind of makes me feel good.”

OK, but is shimmying up and down a customer’s legs or loins, as defense attorneys have asserted and courts around the country have upheld, a form of free speech protected by the 1st Amendment, a means of artistic self-expression?

Is lap dancing even a kind of Florence Nightingale devotion, as suggested by one 23-year-old stripper who told the city’s Public Safety Committee last week that among her regulars is an 85-year-old widower who visits often to lie with her on a bed in her club’s “VIP” room? “We cuddle,” she testified. “You should be able to reach out to somebody when they’re needy.”

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Or is lap dancing, instead, as the moral custodians claim, an insidious charade, a flimsy G-string seeking to conceal far graver sins of the flesh and the soul?

What really goes on in those other-side-of-the-tracks places with bouncers built like NFL linebackers and mood lighting dimmer than a dungeon’s? What really takes place behind those gauzy curtains and chest-high partitions? What is lap dancing?

Bump-and-grind defined

Working definitions of lap dancing are hard to come by in most dictionaries. But a simple one, culled from various sources, might be: when an employee at an adult venue uses one or more of his or her body parts, clothed or unclothed, to touch one or more of a patron’s body parts, clothed, while dancing on the premises. In theory, this can mean anything from straddling and lightly brushing a seated patron’s kneecaps to grinding into his pelvis (we’ll assume it’s a he) with the vigorous squat-thrust motion of a Cossack performing for Czar Nicholas II.

Depending on the dancer’s inclinations, the club’s protocols and the number of undercover cops casing the joint that night, the patron may respond by (1) sitting as stiff and expressionless as a mummy until the song ends, then getting up, forking over a couple of dead presidents and walking away without exchanging so much as a single word; (2) ardently participating in the action; (3) some combination of 1 and 2. Most of this is negotiable, depending on the price.

The authoritative Web site Z Bone Zone lists an entire glossary of lap-dance-related terms, including “lapsidasical” (“an uninspired lap dancer”), “mileage” (“a measure of the nasty factor of a lap dance”), a “Janet Jackson” (so named for a famous Rolling Stone magazine cover in which the R&B; singer appeared with an anonymous pair of hands covering her breasts), and the “Stevie Wonder,” i.e., involuntary head motion from left to right as a customer’s eyes move to beat of the dancer’s bare breasts.

The lap dance is also known as the “straddle dance” or, in one variation, a “face dance.” (Look, this story can’t spell out everything for you.)

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Work life at the Rio

It’s business as usual on a weekday night at the Rio, a swath of escapist fantasy on an industrial corridor off the Harbor Freeway. Inside, half a dozen men chat quietly at small tables with young women wearing bikinis, navel rings, high heels and not much else, while a DJ works the crowd with glib banter and aggressively upbeat pop tunes.

In one dark corner, a young man with a shaved head sits in a small booth staring blankly ahead while a topless female hovers above his legs, twitching to the throbbing backbeat. Overhead, a video camera watches the pair as the moment subsides and they stand up and silently go their separate ways.

In a cramped back office, club owner Max Amadi takes in the scene on a television monitor while keeping up a running commentary on the do’s and don’ts of nude dancing etiquette. A dead ringer for Joe Pesci -- “a lot of people say I look like him” -- the Iranian-born Amadi says he instructs his “girls” to seduce male customers with their brains as much as their bodies -- or words to that effect. “Your job is to arouse them, to sweet-talk them and to get paid $25 or $30,” he tells them.

Claudia, a Rio dancer, says some customers get the wrong idea and ask, How much for sex? “I get so tired of hearing that,” she says. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘You again?!’ ” Most of these requests come from men whose first language isn’t English, she says, and if they keep it up or violate the club’s “no touching” rule, the bouncers know how to deal with them.

L.A.’s proposed ordinance would ban lap dancing and entertaining in secluded “VIP” rooms, prohibit customers from touching strippers or tipping them directly and oblige them to stay at least 6 feet away from each other. The ordinance also spells out a long list of prohibited sexual activities (“actual or simulated”) at adult clubs, some familiar, others obscure and several with five or more syllables and nearly unpronounceable Greek names.

City officials say the new codes are intended to curb unsavory and, in some cases, illegal “secondary effects” resulting from such businesses, such as prostitution and drug use. Club owners also would be required to renew their police permits every year.

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“The current police permitting process, it’s so outdated,” says Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, chairwoman of the council’s Public Safety Committee. L.A. lawmakers, Miscikowski says, aren’t trying to get rid of adult establishments; they’re simply trying to control what goes on inside them.

“There is a place for them,” she says, but there’s been “a burgeoning growth of them in this city and elsewhere, and we need to bring them more back in line.”

But Amadi and other club owners see the city’s efforts as a puritanical crusade better suited to a backwater burg than a famously freewheeling metropolis, home of the Playboy Mansion and the U.S. porn industry.

“If the real concern was the prostitution, obviously a lot more happens on the corner of Figueroa than will ever happen in here,” Amadi insists. “There’s too much at stake for it ever to happen here.”

That line is pretty much standard among club owners. But it’s hardly reassuring to some residents who live near certain clubs, who say they’ve found spent condoms and observed public gropings outside them, or to the LAPD.

“You came at a good time. We’ve got the police in here,” says Stanley Yang, owner of the Silver Reign, a West L.A. club around the corner from a giant Ralphs supermarket, several mid-size office towers and a local television station. Three undercover cops, Yang tells a visiting reporter, have been checking out the club since earlier in the evening. “We’re not supposed to know,” he says dryly.

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One young dancer, Honey, taking a cigarette break in a back room, says it “would kill” her if the city ordinance passes. With a daughter (age 6) and a son (age 5) to support, she says she counts on the extra money she gets from lap dancing to make ends meet.

“I was homeless since I was 15,” she says. “I used to sleep on the sidewalks. I’m a smart girl, but I don’t know how I’d get a regular job.”

Another dancer approaches Honey.

“Can I ask you a question?” the dancer says. “Where did you ... ?” The woman points toward Honey’s breasts, apparently a kind of nude-dancer semiotic device for denoting artificial implants. Unfazed, Honey mentions a top local plastic surgeon. The other dancer is impressed.

“Oh, he’s really good,” Honey says. “He’s like a surgeon to the stars.”

A door opens, and a man in a dark suit tells Honey it’s her turn to perform. That’s the other thing about lap dancing, Honey explains. A good implant job costs about $7,000. It’s hard to make that kind of money just swishing around on a stage from 6 feet away all night.

Is there a societal shift?

But it may take more than Hollywood-grade artificial pecs to save lap dancing in L.A.

At the Classic Lady of Oz (formerly Bob’s Classy Lady) in the northeast Valley, a sign near the entrance reads: “No Alcohol, No Drugs, No Barefeet, No Tanktops, No Colors,” next to which someone has scrawled the word “Gang.” The midnight hour has come and gone, and the few remaining customers are drifting out into the cool night.

Inside an office lined with adult videotapes, owner Jonathan Henry, 33, a handsome, laid-back married man with an 18-month-old son, admits that business has been “kinda slow” lately. Partly it’s the sluggish economy, he says, but he thinks a more complex social change has occurred in the last couple of years.

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“With the way the world is going, I guess people are more Bible-conscious,” Henry says, forcing a smile.

A dancer pokes her head in and asks if she can leave because there’s only one customer left. Give it till 1 o’clock, advises her boss, then we’ll all go home.

Henry says he still has big dreams for the Classic Lady of Oz. He’s enthusiastic about the once-a-month customer appreciation days, and he was stoked about last week’s Father’s Day party, with free lap dances for all those hard-working breadwinners out there. He wants to restore the venue to “the good old days, when it was the most talked-about club” in Los Angeles.

Getting ready to lock up for the night, Henry wanders past the main stage, big enough to hold five dancers at once, and the themed decor of fake rocks suspended from the ceiling, spooky-looking trees, a suit of armor and a ceiling limned with a moon and tiny stars. In the background, the Temptations are singing “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”

Henry, who’s been chattering away about his plans, halts and pauses, as if remembering something he’d wanted to get off his chest for a long time. “Everybody automatically assumes that dancers are nasty,” he says softly. “But they are normal people. They have everyday problems.... People just have to understand they’re people.”

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