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Monday, February 19, 2007

Freakin' Salem

'Grinding' shakes up Legislature
Shuts down school field trips, threatens school funding

Even after the Oregon Law Commission's stern warning, legislators at last week's session continued grinding their bodies against lobbyists.

But the Ethics Commission and the Elections Division had seen enough. The blaring music stopped. The lights came on. And, for the first time in Oregon history, the Attorney General sent lawmakers home early.

It's just dancing, legislators say. But their sexualized moves - called freak dancing, grinding or, simply, freaking - may change the lawmaking process forever.

Once a place where power-hungry adults awkwardly came of age, Salem is under fire because of the dance moves that some say aggressively simulate sex. Now some high schools are canceling fields trip to the state Legislature - a treasured tradition - and giving up the cultural experience that comes with it.

On weekday nights while the legislature is in session, lawmakers from across Oregon wait 45 minutes to enter the Salem Masonic Temple to dance. In one line, lobbyists sport sunglasses and hoodies. Lawmakers, wearing tank tops and short shorts, shake from the cold in the other line.

But it's worth it because they can dance how they want to.

Gone are the arms around the shoulder, while the hands nervously proffer airplane tickets to Maui. Instead, on the dance floor at the Masonic Temple, policymakers grind against one another to the tunes of pounding hip-hop under strobe lights that make their movements seem to last a little longer.

Senators and Representatives bend over, hands on the floor, and shake their bottoms against the lobbyists behind them. They all line up in groups, grinding pelvis to pelvis. When Justin Timberlake sings "I'll let you whip me if I misbehave" in "SexyBack," lobbyists, on cue, spank the state legislator in front of them.

While that may be acceptable to some adults, schools aren't that certain. "It's an eye-opener," says Pam Joyner, the assistant principal at Cleveland High, where administrators have canceled the April trip to Salem. "If most voters attended, they would be offended at what they saw. We felt like it was time to send a message."

Cleveland isn't the first school to get squirmy about lobbyists' and legislators' behavior at dances. After Westview High's field trip was canceled, Beaverton High School Principal Matt Coleman announced in January that the school would not send its students to Salem.

But the lawmakers and lobbyists who attend the dances defend their moves. "Voters need to realize we don't mean it sexually," says Mark Nelson, Big Tobacco's long-time Oregon lobbyist. "We're just having fun." They relate the complaints to every era's battles over style, freedom and expression. "The style of dancing changes," Nelson says, "but people have always done the same thing."

As long as dancing's been around, so has consternation about it, says Julie Malnig, a social dance historian at New York University. Since the turn of the past century, as dances became more sexualized, puritanical adults tried to clamp down, she says. In the early 1900s, prudes were enraged over the Turkey Trot. In 1915, the Pope banned the tango as lewd.

"I see it as a continuum, an ongoing pattern that has always existed," she says. "New dances emerge that are reflective of changing social values, with increasing bodily freedom, and stodgy people reject them. Free-spirits then rebel."

After Westview canceled its field trip, Nelson immediately saw a backlash. Mostly it was from freshmen lawmakers who didn't know what it meant. "They thought we were going to have to stand a foot apart, but that's not the case," he says.

Patty Wentz, the veteran "Our Oregon" government-union lobbyist, founded the dances at the Masonic Temple after she recognized that lawmakers from around the state are starved for something fun to do on weeknights during the long legislative session. Two years ago, after lobbyists like Nelson, the tobacco lobbyist, begged her to start one, she began the dances. Since then, thousands of influence-peddlers have lined up, hoping to get in.

Last Saturday, 250 lobbyists paid $100 each to dance. At the events, lawmakers regulate their own dancing. All the money collected is donated to Oregon K-12 schools. But Nelson, too, is starting to think the dancing is too raunchy. He would like to see less dirty dancing, but he understands why they do it.

"If politicians knew how to dance, if they knew something beyond freak dancing, they would do it," he says. "The lobbyists like this because it's the only way they know how. With the Senators and Representatives turned away from them, they can't see them looking like an idiot when they dance."

In an effort to clean up dances, the Oregon Law Commission has looked into offering classes on other styles, including salsa. Lobbyists freak dance, Wentz says, because it's what they know. Some lawmakers take it too far, though. "They wear miniskirts and bend over in front of a lobbyist," she says.

That behavior shows no self-respect, says veteran lobbyist Dave Barrows, also a member of the Law Commission. When a committee chair turned around in front of him at a dance, he says he said, "Turn around. You're not a piece of meat. Look me in the eye." Barrows and other lobbyists support school prinicipals' decisions to close the dances to student visits. "It's not dancing anymore," he says. "Lawmakers are letting themselves be disrespected."

Malnig, the dance historian, says legislators are testing identities. "Newly-elected lawmakers have the opportunity to test out different behaviors and responses to the lobbyists," she says. "You could argue that it's better to try those out on a Masonic Temple dance floor rather than in some Capitol back room where it might lead to the real thing."

Dan Cook, a legislative intern and chaperone, says freak dancing is appalling, but he likes the dances because the lawmakers are kept safe. A police officer patrols every event. If a lobbyist has been drinking, chaperones call the Ethics Commission. If a lawmaker has been drinking, chaperones call the Elections Division.

But if lawmakers quit attending dances, schools would lose money, says David Nieslanik, activities director at Beaverton High. "It would have a huge impact on us," he says. "We use the dance funds to support club activities and supplies."

The Oregonian, Feb. 18, By CASEY PARKS

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