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Dancing with deputies 

It was too good to be true. Attorneys preparing to file a "pre-emptive strike" in federal court blocking Polk County authorities from using a new curfew ordinance to spoil the Zen Festival received a letter on Aug. 28 advising them that sheriff's deputies had decided to delay enforcement until after the festival and all-night dance. "I must remind you that the effective date for the Juvenile Protection Ordinance is Aug. 29, 1997. However, the Polk County Sheriff's Office isn't enforcing the Ordinance until after the 30-day education period. The enforcement date begins Oct. 1, 1997," wrote David Bergdoll, the sheriff's general counsel. Could it be that Polk County was going to allow the kids to dance all night, after all? This development was particularly curious because -- on the same day that an assistant Polk County attorney had told Orlando Weekly that the curfew would go into effect in time for the Zen Fest -- the sheriff's office had issued a memo deciding to put it off. While no one was admitting it, the county -- already facing two federal lawsuits from Zen Fest's attorneys -- apparently had decided that discretion was the better part of valor. But in retrospect, it seems clear that Polk officials simply decided on a different strategy. By delaying its use of the curfew, Polk County took away Zen's legal leverage, forcing organizers to wait and see what transpired at the show, rather than seeking a federal court order preventing the deputies from clearing the dance floor. What transpired was a massive police presence, estimated at more than 100 sheriff's deputies and helicopter (paid by the Zen promoters) who attended the festival. As the crowd drove up to the Polk County Fairgrounds, they passed a parking lot filled with more than 100 squad cars. "It looked like a police station, there were so many cars," Mark Padgett said. Inside, the crowd was joined by deputies who made about 50 arrests, though not for curfew violations. The police presence clearly dulled the vibe at the festival, which aimed to combine a variety of music all night long on four stages with "educational entertainment" focusing on health and safety, environmental awareness, technology and cultural awareness and "plenty of love and respect in the air." Instead, April Hawkins' lingering recollections were of an awful traffic snarl and scads of police who "all looked like confused, redneck cops who had no idea what was going on." While trying to find her way out, Hawkins said she drove past a maintenance lot where more than 50 kids in handcuffs were huddled together, apparently in preparation for transport to jail. Meanwhile, other Central Florida officials struggle to come to terms with the continued popularity of the late-night dances, also known as raves. At 2 p.m. Sept. 8, Orlando City Council is scheduled to offer opponents of the proposed anti-rave ordinance one last chance to make their arguments. Originally slated for Aug. 25, the final vote was delayed to avoid failure in the absence of globe-trotting Commissioner Betty Wyman. Barring an unforeseen change of allegiance, Council is then expected to pass its the ordinance, closing all nightclubs at 3 a.m. -- including The Club at Firestone, the city's world-renowned center of the action. The 10-page ordinance claims such drastic steps are justified because more than 25 percent of rave patrons dabble in drugs such as heroin, Ecstacy and "Roofies," also known as the "date-rape drug." The last of seven whereases states: "City Council finds that this ordinance is enacted in recognition of its obligation to protect the health, safety and morals of the citizens and visitors." In preparing for their last stand, club owners have gathered 100 signatures from downtown businesses opposing the ordinance. While hamstringing businesses already competing with Pleasure Island and other nightclubs around the attractions exempted from the state anti-rave bill, "this ordinance addresses the activities of adults in their business and personal lives." And Jon Marsa, proprietor of The Club at Firestone, hinted that he has an ace up his sleeve he plans to unveil at the meeting. While more than 20,000 kids flocked to Zen, despite the police state, and hundreds, if not thousands, crowd The Club on weekend nights, the Big Top tour, scheduled for Sept. 6 at the Florida State Fairgrounds, seems unlikely to cause much of a buzz. By presstime Tuesday, events coordinator Doug Smith said less than 100 tickets had been sold. (Just to pay the rental fee, Fantasma Productions must sell 400.) With a small turnout expected, Smith said he had no plans to beef up security. Nor did he expect the show, which he said was a dance, not a rave, to run all night; in fact, it must end at 3 a.m. Still, Smith is trying to track other shows on the national tour promoted by the William Morris Agency. "I'm chasing it around the country to see what's going on," he said.

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