Last chance for a slow dance? 

The male detective and the scantily clad woman slow-danced in a circle, his wide girth limiting the fullness of the pair's bodily contact in the seclusion of the small room where women entertained "VIP" customers at a South Orange Blossom Trail after-hours club.

This uninspired encounter captured on a hidden security camera went no further. But it -- and other apparently harmless turns around the dance floor between dancers and customers at Bourbon Street South -- were the basis for a series of raids that have convinced owner Bill Ward to close down the club and file a federal lawsuit against Orange County.

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To the masked detectives of the Metropolitan Bureau of Enforcement, what went on inside Bourbon Street South qualified as illegal adult entertainment. But to Ward, the arrests unfairly distinguished his "swim-suit" club from more mainstream establishments where dancing for profit is the stock in trade.

"Slow dancing entails a man and woman holding one another and slowly moving in a circle. This is a traditional dance that has occurred across the United States for decades, if not hundreds of years," writes attorney Steven Mason in Ward's lawsuit. Mason expects to make the same arguments on Friday in a court hearing before U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawsett.

To demonstrate the parallels to the judge, Mason has hired private investigators to watch and videotape dancers who work for Merry Minstrels and other businesses that travel throughout Central Florida performing racy routines for money. "When you look at the actual footage, they're far more provocative than at Bourbon Street," Mason says. "It happens everywhere."

Bourbon Street South is located on property where adult entertainment is prohibited. Drinks are non-alcoholic, unlike at most adult-entertainment clubs. Customers earn the right to chat or dance with the dancers through the purchase of "packages" entitling customers to time with the dancers. No money is to be exchanged and no one is supposed to get naked (although there have been alleged violations of the county nudity ordinance). "Guys just want to come in here and talk to a lady," Ward says. "It's fun, just fun."

But attempts to equate Bourbon Street South dancers with Arthur Murray instructors, Merry Minstrels dancers and a legion of other county businesses that offer dancing for money hardly sway Joe Cocchiarella, the assistant state attorney heading up the county vice-fighting unit.

"This is just business as usual," says Cocchiarella, pointing out that in 1994, Ward -- who also owns Crazy Girls and BG's Bar, two adult clubs in Orange County -- replaced the original plaintiff in the lawsuit that won adult-club owners a temporary reprieve from the county's new adult code, until a November 1994 ruling cleared the way for enforcement. It was Ward's girlfriend, Kim Gatena -- in a lawsuit filed in April by Mason four days before Ward's suit -- who filed a lawsuit asking a judge to declare the county ordinance unconstitutional because exceptions allowing nudity at plays and live performances create an unfair -- and unconstitutional -- double standard.

Ironically, in defining Ward's club as an adult business, Cocchiarella refers to the same section of the county ordinance as Mason. The section explains that the law only applies when "the predominant business" involves the sale of something "intended to provide sexual stimulation or sexual gratification."

To make its case against Ward, the county may assert that Merry Minstrels and special events such as the one at Zuma Beach should also become the objects of vice detective's surveillance and subject to raids like the ones that closed down Bourbon Street South.

"This could have far-reaching implications, not only in Orange County, but across Florida," Mason says.

More by Lawrence Budd


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