'Sexy' exercise salon has Adams officials in a cold sweat

It's the first thing a visitor will see on her Web site.

Stephanie Babines, in a black tube top with long, blond hair caressing her shoulders, is grasping a gleaming stripper pole.

Her shirt is just high enough -- and her black pants just low enough -- to reveal a large tattoo on her lower back.

She looks sultry, seductive. She is advertising pole dancing and fitness classes.

Though there is no nudity -- and no spectators -- she wants the women who take her class to embrace their sexuality.

"This is about bringing out the power that women have," Ms. Babines said. "That comes out of being more confident and more sexy."

Officials in Adams, where Ms. Babines planned to open a dance studio, have forbidden it, claiming that she wants to run an adult business.

Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Foundation of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf, claiming violations to her First Amendment right to freedom of expression, among other charges.

"The activities deemed too provocative by Adams Township have become an increasingly popular form of exercise for women around the country, and even in China, a country not known for freedom," said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLF of Pennsylvania and one of the woman's attorneys.

Representatives from Adams did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The classes taught by Ms. Babines, 30, of Cranberry, include striptease, hoop aerobics, power lap dance, Stiletto Strut, belly and salsa dancing, SeXXXercise -- an ab and core workout -- and pole dancing.

She immersed herself in pole dancing and fitness three years ago, reshaping her body from a size 14/16 to a 4/6, she said.

"Specifically, Ms. Babines considers pole dancing to be both an art and a sport, and she believes that pole dancing demonstrates that women can be powerful, physically strong, and beautiful with their clothes on," according to the 18-page lawsuit.

Ms. Babines, who has a master's degree in project management and works a day job in information technology, leased space at 222 Mars-Valencia Road, zoned commercial/industrial, in February to open her studio. She spent about $10,000 renovating the former children's clothing store into a dance and fitness center, installing flooring and mirrors, poles, a dressing room and light fixtures.

But when she applied for an occupancy permit from the township, she received a letter on March 28 from township code enforcement officer Gary Peaco denying it.

"We recently received information that would classify your business as an 'Adult Business,' because of the content of your advertising and information from your websites," he wrote.

She appealed to the township zoning and hearing board, and hearings were held May 20 and June 24.

At the first hearing, several people spoke on Ms. Babines' behalf, including a self-described "Christian grandmother," who said she'd taken the pole dancing and Stiletto Strut classes.

"She said the classes were designed to increase women's self-esteem in a male-dominated society. She stated that Ms. Babines never offered for sale any sexually explicit material or sex toys during her classes," the lawsuit said.

No residents spoke out against the proposed business, but Mr. Peaco did. He said he never interviewed Ms. Babines regarding her intentions for the property because her Web site spoke for itself.

"He testified that regardless of whether the activity involved nudity, the dance forms Ms. Babines intended to teach were 'provocative' and contained sexual 'innuendo,' and her dance studio should therefore be classified as an 'adult business,'" the lawsuit contends.

He went on to say that the pink and black color scheme of the Web site, ohmyyouregorgeous.com, along with the logo of an ankle-strap platform heel "indicated to him that she intended to operate an 'adult business.'"

"We looked into colors and the pink and black are used quite often in gentleman's clubs, along with the stiletto heel is used commonly ... if you go on the Internet and look at brand identity, it talks about different colors," Mr. Peaco said at the hearing. "Red and black are often associated with sexy and seductive and are favored by porn sites."

The zoning hearing board rejected Ms. Babines' appeal, saying that her studio would be considered an "adult business" and would be illegally located within 1,000 feet of a residential district and within 1,000 feet of a bar.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti.

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published August 29, 2008 4:00 AM


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