When the barn doors of Coyote Ugly swung open last week, a throng of Memphians packed the new Beale Street club to watch the bartenders dance atop the bar. But due to a vaguely worded city moratorium on dance permits, there was a chance the bartenders wouldn't be able to strut their stuff.
Last week, the City Council voted to extend the six-month moratorium on compensated dance permits -- the kind required for strip clubs and shake joints -- that they enacted last December. The council also specified in the updated moratorium that it only applied to "adult-oriented businesses."
Because Coyote Ugly serves alcohol and employees are paid to dance on the bar -- even though they do not remove their clothing -- the establishment had to get a compensated dance permit. But because the permit moratorium was for any business with compensated dance, not just adult-oriented businesses, it couldn't. And they would not have been the only ones.
"We need to ensure that the language only applies to adult business, not Coyote Ugly, not The Orpheum," deputy city attorney Elbert Jefferson told City Council members at a committee meeting last week.
The dance-permit moratorium was extended six months to allow Duncan Associates, the consulting firm hired to revise the city's zoning ordinance, more time to study the problem.
"They're looking at the language of the ordinance, the fines, and how much criminal activity is perpetrated in that industry," said council chair TaJuan Stout Mitchell.
According to Eric Kelly, vice president of the Texas-based Duncan Associates, enforcement of the current dance ordinance is fairly lax.
"There appears to be a lot more contact between customers and performers in the Memphis clubs than we have seen in other cities," said Kelly.
He also pointed out that although the existing ordinance requires dancers to wear bottoms, they seldom do.
"It appears that it's worth it to these clubs to pay the fines for the dancers so they can go on performing," said Kelly. "We're not just looking at the ordinance language. We're also looking at enforcement and legislation. In theory, the clubs are supposed to be topless clubs."
Kelly said the company's findings should be presented to the City Council and the County Commission in October. A new ordinance stemming from the findings should be drafted by December.
"The problem is that this ordinance is so broad that we're just making sure it doesn't affect us at all," said Coyote Ugly owner and founder Lil Lovell at the club's opening. "We're the new kid in town. We're just trying to let people know what we're all about. We're completely the opposite of a strip club."
But even though the dance-permit moratorium now distinguishes between adult-oriented businesses and those that aren't, the line between the two may be as confusing as ever.
The city attorney's office re-issued a compensated dance permit to Charles Westlund last week for a proposed club at 616 Marshall Avenue.
The permitting office had originally issued Westlund a permit last September. He planned to open a topless bar in the space, but the brouhaha surrounding the proposed downtown strip club led the City Council to re-examine its ordinance. Westlund's permit was revoked by the city shortly thereafter due to the club's proximity to churches, schools, and parks.
But the permit was re-issued after Westlund said he would operate the club in a manner similar to Coyote Ugly.
Lovell's bartender/dancers are quick to say that they're completely different from strippers.
"If you watch the dances, it's nothing like strip dancing at all," said Latasha Sims, a Coyote Ugly bartender. "It's hard to learn the dances. It's really choreographed."