Pole dancing got a toehold on Ocean City’s boardwalk over the weekend, and neither city officials nor area merchants seem too thrilled.
Saturday night, an unidentified woman wearing a bikini set up a pole on the boardwalk and danced for onlookers. Police were powerless to do anything – a federal court recently ruled that street performers have a right to perform in public places like the boardwalk, apparently even if what they do is decidedly adult-oriented. And though she doesn't seem to have been back since, the dancer clearly made an impression.
"It was disgusting, it doesn’t belong anywhere here," said Joe Kro-Art, the owner of Ocean City’s famous Ocean Gallery art shop, who had a front-row seat for Saturday night’s performance – and promptly called the cops. "If this is not dealt with, then every resort on the East Coast is going to have pole dancers."
Kro-Art said some police officers showed up and stayed for 25-30 minutes, but left without doing anything. He said he understands the legal restrictions the city faces, but stresses the town’s family-friendly atmosphere could be in jeopardy. "There were people walking up with their kids, standing there a few minutes, and walking away in shock," he said
Not that pole dancing is entirely foreign to Maryland’s number-one resort; one O.C. rental even advertises itself as "the only pole dancing condo in Ocean City Maryland" and comes with a removable dance pole stored in a closet. But moving such erotic gyrations onto the boardwalk is clearly not everyone’s notion of a good idea.
"It was a mixed bag of reaction," town Councilman Brent Ashley said. "Some people thought it was OK. But I got an email from a family from New Jersey who happened to be here visiting and they didn't think it was appropriate."
Unfortunately for O.C. officials, who actively promote their resort as a family-friendly destination, there doesn't seem to be much they can do, except frown on the practice and hope for the best.
"The Boardwalk is one of our best features, it’s a large piece of what makes Ocean City a family resort," said town spokeswoman Jessica Waters. "We are seeing what our rights and our options are."
Waters emphasized that the resort "takes very seriously that family-friendly reputation." She noted that the city spent some $200,000 in legal fees defending its right to regulate street performers on the Boardwalk.
In February 2012, after a U.S. district judge issued an injunction against many such regulations, city officials signed a consent decree promising to pretty-much leave street performers alone, as long as they restrict their artistry to designated areas of the boardwalk.
Apparently, the cost of free speech includes an occasional public pole dancer
"It's a violation of everybody else’s rights," insists Kro-Art, who believes leaving such expression unchecked could have grave consequences for a resort like Ocean City. "How about public nudity and stuff?" he asked. "Is that freedom of expression?"