Henderson teen club ban echoes 'Footloose' prudery

Except for the occasional slow-motion circling with my wife at a wedding or something, I don't dance. But like most adults who "don't dance," I did some gamboling that resembled dancing back in the day.

When I was a teenager.

Teenagers like to dance. They can't seem to help themselves. All that pent-up energy of youth must be set free. Every generation has a different catchphrase to describe this desire, but the bottom line is that dancing will always be with us.

And occasionally, the powers-that-be in some community revive the notion that impressionable young people will be destined for hell if they're allowed to jiggle and gyrate to a rollicking beat.

In 1979, students at Elmore City High School in Oklahoma wanted to have a memorable senior prom, but they faced an obstacle: a city ordinance that prohibited public dancing. The students took their case to the city council, where they were pitted against a minister who likened dancing to devil worship. After much debate, the students prevailed and everybody had a grand time at Elmore City's senior prom. This small-town drama was the inspiration for the 1984 movie "Footloose," starring Kevin Bacon.

You wouldn't think a town in free-thinking Nevada would take its cues from the Bible Belt, but amazingly, a "Footloose" for the 21st century recently played out in Henderson.

The Henderson City Council, sounding a lot like that infamous minister in Oklahoma, voted earlier this month to ban new teen dance clubs within the city limits. Council members linked teenage dancing with alcohol and drug use, violence and assorted other anti-social activities, such as urinating on the side of buildings. The only thing they left out of their condemnation was that dancing would drive unsuspecting teens through a trapdoor to hell's gate. Maybe they were just thinking it.

In any case, the ordinance is a travesty -- irrational and unconstitutional. Maggie McLetchie, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, says the ordinance is so broadly written that it technically could prevent a parent from holding a monthly party for kids at his house.

Conveniently, the ordinance carves out exceptions for functions sponsored by governments and churches. This is a content-based restriction that violates the Constitution, but it also leaves an Orwellian taste. What it's saying is that private enterprise can't be trusted to offer venues for kids to dance and listen to music, but the government is perfectly qualified to dictate the cultural agenda.

Furthermore, the ordinance applies to 18-year-olds, who in most circumstances are considered to be adults. "You can vote and you can die for your country, but you can't dance?" McLetchie says.

The legal flaws in the ordinance are bad enough, and should be challenged in the good name of the First Amendment. But that's only half the problem. This ordinance is yet another example of how life is made difficult for teenagers in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is designed for adults. Our dominant industry revolves around gambling, drinking, copulating and, yes, dancing. We not only allow these activities at all hours of the day and night, we encourage them. The more the better.

With our sights set on adults who can legally participate in these activities, the tens of thousands of teenagers who live in this community typically are shut out, neglected, ignored. Pop bands with large teenage fan bases perform for those young fans in other cities, but when those acts come to Las Vegas, they typically play in the casinos, leaving the under-21 crowd out of luck.

Sam Azeke grew up in Las Vegas and graduated from Eldorado High School. He's 33 years old now and manages the one teen dance club allowed to operate in Henderson. The club, Frozen75 on East Sunset Road, has been in existence for about 18 months. It was grandfathered in by the City Council when it approved its new teen dance club ordinance.

Azeke has seen what Las Vegas presents to young people.

"There are a lot of pitfalls," he says. "There are so many different roads to go down, and a lot of those roads aren't good roads."

Naturally he wants Frozen75 to make money, but the most important thing, he insists, is to offer an alternative for kids who might otherwise turn to destructive behaviors.

Frozen75 is a full-fledged dance club with cutting-edge music and opportunities for kids to cut loose and socialize. But alcohol and drugs are not allowed.

Ample security, strict club rules, a hefty admission fee and a dress code make it a safe place for parents to drop off their kids for a few hours on a Friday or Saturday night.

"We're trying to buy these kids time," Azeke says. He explains that Frozen75 shows 14- and 15-year-olds that it's possible to have a great time at a dance club without feeling compelled to drink or take drugs.

He says he's seen the socialization that goes on at the club build the confidence and self-esteem of younger teens. As a result, when they become 17 or 18 years old and the peer pressure increases to drink or take drugs, they know that to do so is a genuine choice -- one they can choose to avoid.

Azeke worked at a nightclub on the Strip for three years and saw patrons who had just turned 21. "They go crazy," he says, wallowing in the world of alcohol and drugs. The Strip nightclub is an entirely new experience for them because they have no perspective.

On the other hand, he submits, a Frozen75 veteran who turns 21 may not be as likely to over-indulge. "You know what this nightclub thing is all about," he says. "You may partake of alcohol but you don't feel the need to get ridiculously drunk. You can enjoy yourself without it. You're a pro. It's not a big deal. You make better, wiser decisions."

Azeke knows some kids won't follow this prudent path, but he believes his club has a chance to help a few of them.

The alternative to licensed, regulated, well-run teen dance clubs? Sorry to inform the Henderson City Council, but the alternative is not an Honor Society bowling outing or punch and cookies at church. That's an absurdly unrealistic expectation.

No, the alternative most likely is the underground scene: house parties, desert parties -- hives of unsupervised, reckless, risky activities that leave parents out of the loop and kids with no safety net.

I'll take Azeke's idealistic vision over the clueless mentality of the Henderson City Council any time.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.