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Burlesque performer seeks exemption in proposed West Fargo ordinance

Members of Bad Weather Burlesque, Jen Walla, from left, Mary Purcell, Amanda Nygard, Sabrina Hornung and Sarah Schaan are seen in this Nov. 30, 2010, file photo in Fargo. FNS Photo by John Lamb

WEST FARGO - A proposed ordinance here requiring adult performers to be licensed is ruffling the feathers of at least one local burlesque performer.

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The ordinance is meant to curb illegal activities related to the business of stripping and escorts, but Gennifer Christianson says it’s not fair to legitimate performers who just happen to have nudity in their act.

She said that although burlesque performances can be risqué, they are not necessarily tawdry, and certainly not meant to encourage anything illegal.

Christianson said she wants to see a clause included in ordinances such as West Fargo’s proposed law or the one passed in Moorhead, Minn., in January that gives burlesque troupes an exemption.

The West Fargo ordinance was patterned after Moorhead’s law and requires adult entertainers and the businesses that employ them to carry a license issued by the city. The license is valid for one year, and applicants must be older than 18 and pass a criminal background check.

The licenses cost $250 in Moorhead.

Metro area police departments began looking at licensing adult performers after crimes such as prostitution, theft, and drug possession and distribution were committed under the guise of advertisements for adult entertainers at places like the online classified site

Although there is some nudity in performances, burlesque is defined by its interpretation and parody style of dance. The neo-classical performance has been popular since the Victorian era, but interest has sparked a revival of sorts by women who perform and join troupes as a method of expression and empowerment.

Christianson said that is what drew her to join Bad Weather Burlesque, the only burlesque troupe in North Dakota.

“You don’t have to be perfect to do burlesque,” Christianson said. “In fact, it’s about embracing your body as a woman. We try to show (women) how to be confident no matter what you look like.”

Christianson is concerned the licensing process and possible hefty fee might keep some women from getting involved with the performance troupe.

“It’s intimidating for someone who just wants to go onstage, meet new people and be cheeky,” Christianson said. “It’s not that we’re against the whole idea of (stripper licenses), we’re not. What it comes down to is every performance is a play, and it’s not being recognized as such.”

The West Fargo ordinance clearly defines the types of entertainment performers must be licensed for and allows for exceptions such as a performer at a licensed cabaret business, volunteers who pose nude or semi-nude for public art classes, and an adult bookstore without live entertainment.

Before the ordinance can be considered by the West Fargo City Commission for final approval, it will be reviewed by the state attorney general to ensure the language is in accordance with a state statute that reserves regulation of obscenity to the state.

Assistant Police Chief Mike Reitan said he will look into the definition of burlesque and how it pertains to the ordinance, but it is unlikely a burlesque exemption will be included in the final ordinance draft.

“What we are trying to get away from is the people who employ underage dancers or that participate in prostitution activities or commit other types of crimes such as theft or narcotics related to prostitution,” he said.

Reitan said the ordinance was modeled after the one passed in Moorhead, with the intent to have similar laws across the metro area. Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes considered drafting the same type of ordinance earlier this year.

Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel said Ternes is monitoring how the attorney general replies to West Fargo.

“We will not put anything forward to the commission until we see how these develop,” Vettel said.

Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said no one has applied for an adult entertainment license and no one has been cited for failing to be licensed – a misdemeanor charge – since the law went into effect in February.

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