The jukebox cranked out the thumping beat of "You Belong to the City" and heads turned from the bar. Swaying in a dim orange glow, the dancer, "Raquel," surrendered her flimsy negligee to gravity and revealed . . . well, revealed something that D.C. law might soon demand she keep to herself.
"What do you mean?" the 28-year-old startled starlet asked after finishing a 20-minute performance au naturel before an appreciative lunchtime crowd at Archibald's pub in downtown Washington. Her big brown eyes grew bigger as the news sank in.
On Wednesday, D.C. Council member John Ray (D-At Large) proposed legislation that would put some mystery back into stage acts such as Raquel's that now leave little to the imagination.
In response to complaints of unruliness near clubs that draw liquor-consuming audiences to ogle strippers, Ray's bill outlines explicit regions of the anatomy that performers would have to keep under wraps.
For years, police and other defenders of the District's morality have tried, mostly in vain, to enforce antismut laws that frequently lacked teeth or Supreme Court sanctions.
Under Ray's bill, modeled after a California law, dancers would still be able to show all their curves, but not if their bosses want to retain their licenses to sell liquor. And because nude dancing and alcohol are almost inseparable elements at an estimated 20 District pubs -- up from fewer than a dozen 15 years ago -- the bill has drawn the attention of some restaurant owners and civil libertarians.
"The Supreme Court has said that nude dancing is a form of expression protected by the First Amendment, and we agree with that," said Art Spitzer, Washington-area director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Spitzer said he had not seen the bill and that the ACLU will have to examine it closely before taking a formal position.
Margaret Gentry, Ray's spokeswoman, said yesterday that there had been no immediate response from club owners. However, some owners who met with Ray when the bill was being drafted say privately that they were not fully apprised of what form the final measure would take, and are now grouping to mount a counterattack.
"Obviously when you do something like this, if they owners are prevented from operating the way they've been operating they're going to be hurt economically," said David Wilmot, the attorney for the D.C. Restaurant and Beverage Association.
"You just can't shut them down overnight," said Wilmot, noting that owners of the clubs supply hundreds of thousands of dollars in D.C. sales tax revenue. "If there's no objection from the community, there's no reason the government should get involved."
Wilmot said the association will press to have existing clubs "grandfathered" under the legislation when the council takes it up after the summer recess. But when questioned on this point, Gentry laughed and said, "Everybody wants to be grandfathered."
One owner who clearly would like such a designation is Dan Harris, 43, who has operated Archibald's at 1520 K St. NW since it first began offering intimate entertainment in 1969.
Harris employs more than a dozen young dancers who work seven-hour shifts from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. through the week, complimenting Archibald's tuna melts and cheeseburgers and helping bring in up to $1 million or more in annual receipts.
"This is a wholesome establishment. There's nothing obscene about a nude woman," said Harris. "My mother is 76, and when she comes downtown she comes here for lunch."
As Harris surveyed a group of about 30 noontime customers earlier this week, a balding, middle-aged man in a gray suit and tortoise shell glasses walked to the small stage where a dancer who called herself Maria was gyrating in front of a long mirror. The man smiled and placed a dollar bill in a garter belt bristling with greenbacks.
"That guy's in here almost every day," said Harris. "There are a lot of regulars -- lawyers, politicians, accountants, off-duty police officers."
Customers agreed with Harris, but seemed nervous about seeing their names in the newspaper.
One regular seated on his usual stool at the end of the bar compared the atmosphere at Archibald's with "Cheers," a popular television series about life in a pub.
"I'm not really a libertarian. I don't encourage a no-restrictions type of place. But as long as it's managed well, it's certainly well within the bounds of contemporary mores and social concepts," the man said.
"When they dancers first went bottomless, the customers got up a petition to keep it just topless. The girls were nice and it was a nice place to come. Just being topless was enough."
A younger customer carrying a copy of the autobiography of Sen. Gary Hart described himself only as an "unpaid worker" for the senator. "I've brought my fiance here," the man said. "And this is the woman who's going to bear my children."