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Music Cues: Supreme Court Ruling on Nude Dancing
Scott Simon
April 1, 2001

Scott Simon commentary about a Supreme Court ruling on nude dancing

Is it an irony that on the same day this week on which the New York Times bannered the Supreme Court decision that local officials can ban nude dancing, they also ran the obituary of Anna Sokolow?

Ms. Sokolow was ninety--a choreographer who used dance to express defiance, loneliness, anxiety and delight. Ms. Sokolow's work might remind the six judges who apparently do not consider dance a form of protected speech that dance, in fact, was perhaps the first way humans tried to announce, "I'm lonely. I'm bursting. I'm scared. I'm in love."

As recently as 1995, she worked a glimpse of nudity into her September Sonnet, in which two middle-aged people find the courage to fall in love. Nudity, she felt, gave flesh to human fears about growing old, stale, and unlovely. But Anna Sokolow might have caused greater consternation in her 1965 piece for the Joffrey Ballet, Opus 65, in which her dancers performed what she called "a beat ballet" in what was then considered scandalous costume: blue jeans. And nothing but blue jeans.

Now of course, the Erie, Pennsylvania strip club called Kandyland that is at the center of the suit brought before the court is hardly the Joffrey. Forcing a Kandyland dancer to wear the sparest apparel availible to cover his or her private parts will probably not inhibit ballet companies, Broadway shows, or neighbourhood theaters from baring anything they choose in the pursuit of art.

But the Supreme Court decision was based on the idea that nude dancing can be banned if a municipality believes it promotes drunkeness and prostitution. You might wonder if some future local prosecutor will decide that Nicole Marie Duffy can wear her revealingly sleek leotard on the Joffrey's stage in Chicago; but when the company plays Erie, Pennsylvania, she'll have to pull on woolen leggings.

Artists often see no clear line between good taste and bad taste, what's lewd or tasteful. They tend to fret more about what works or what doesn't--what reaches an audience, or leaves them cold.

There is no "hotter" name in American theater at the moment than that of the late Bob Fosse, between the continuing success of the revival of his musical, CHICAGO, and the anthology show of his choreography called FOSSE. He is being acclaimed--as he should--a genius who wound a sinuousness and sharpness into dance.

As Bob Fosse himself would fondly point out: he learned the craft of his art in Chicago strip clubs. He took the smokey, cynical daring of the strip and brightened it with brilliance. The persisting popularity of Bob Fosse's work might remind us that vulgarity, too, has the power to inspire as well as apall--if people are left alone to judge it for themselves.