HENRYETTA — It took just under five minutes Tuesday to repeal a decades-old city ordinance that banned public dancing in Henryetta.
The issue resurfaces every so often, and, because of comparisons to the film “Footloose,” tends to thrust the city into the national spotlight, said Mayor Jennifer Clason.
Until recently the 1970s-era ordinance hasn’t stopped a dance, as far as Clason knows, and it’ll never stop another one.
As of 6:35 p.m. Tuesday, with a unanimous vote from the City Council, dancing is legal in Henryetta, Oklahoma.
The only catch is if dancing was ever illegal in Henryetta, it was only that way on paper.
Cowboy town with dancing issue
Henryetta is nestled at the junction of Interstate 40 and the Indian Nation Turnpike. It’s the hometown of two notable cowboys, former Dallas football player Troy Aikman and rodeo cowboy and rancher Jim Shoulders.
Prior to an ill-fated Valentine’s Day dance this year, that’s all many knew about the former coal town, which is home to an estimated 5,765 people, according to Census Bureau data.
The hullabaloo began in early February when Joni Insabella started selling tickets to a Valentine’s Day dance, to take place above her shop at Rose LaVon’s Marketplace and Event Center.
“We wanted just a good, clean, fun event. As I said, we know we’re in the Bible Belt. We weren’t having alcohol or anything. We just wanted it to be fun for the community,” Insabella said.
Like many buildings in Henryetta, the shop is within 500 feet of a church.
Specifically, it’s about 250 feet from the Henryetta Church of Christ, which sits near City Hall at Fifth and Broadway streets.
The now-abolished ordinance banned dance halls within 500 feet of a church or public school. The city code defined a dance hall as any “room, place or space” where dances are held.
Insabella, who hails from Henryetta but just moved back after about 40 years, said she’d either forgotten about the ordinance or didn’t give it a thought, considering it’d never been enforced before.
“And the church does not care. They are our frequent shoppers over here. Church people come over all the time. They weren’t the ones that had the problem,” she said.
Some people did care, though, and when the city’s Chamber of Commerce posted about the dance on its Facebook page, they let loose, calling Insabella a lawbreaker and accusing her of receiving special treatment because of her husband’s role as Henryetta’s city attorney.
They decided to cancel the dance, and the mayor decided to look into the ordinance.
Dancing in the city
Clason, 45, who is just finishing her first term as the city’s first female mayor, has spent all her life in Henryetta. Until the Valentine’s Day dance, she’d never heard of the ordinance preventing dancing.
In fact, she knows of dances that have been hosted at Henryetta churches and schools with no legal fallout.
Police Chief Steve Norman has said he hasn’t and wouldn’t enforce the ordinance. City Councilor Ronnie Duke told Clason he didn’t enforce the ban when he was a police officer in the ‘70s. “That’s why it’s on the agenda,” Clason said. “If we’re not going to enforce it, let’s not have it.”
Because record keeping wasn’t very stringent when the ordinance was passed, Clason said she’s not entirely sure of the motivation behind it. She does know some rumors, though.
“What I heard was it was to prevent a bar that wanted to build a dance club on Main Street, and they thought the drunkenness of the people wandering up and down Main Street would be a nuisance to the people of the city,” she said.
The penalty for dancing in Henryetta was a $25 fine.
Insabella heard a similar story. “They thought the Main Street was going to be lined with bars and drunks, so they came up with the ordinance,” she said.
In both tellings, the ordinance was more to curb activities associated with dancing — like drinking — than dancing itself.
Another common rumor says rattlesnakes were banned in the city for much the same reason as dancing: The powers that be didn’t want either on Main Street, the city’s busy thoroughfare, Clason said.
She remembers a shop on South Second Street, where a man would bring rattlesnakes and host rattlesnake dances.
“That was before my time. I would never do it, but it’s my understanding they did,” Clason said.
With the passage of both ordinances, citizens were discouraged from taking part in those – and all – dances.
Ready to dance
On Tuesday, reporters and residents packed into the City Council’s chambers. The room, which can normally hold about 30, was filled to capacity.
“I want to go dancing!” a man yelled before the meeting began.
Clason, sporting a neon pink T-shirt proclaiming, “Keep calm because dancing is not a crime,” responded with an, “OK.” A few minutes later, she knocked a gavel three times, and the meeting began.
The meeting consisted of 27 agenda items. Clason and company approved Nos. 1, 12, 13 and 14 before she moved to No. 19, which dealt with the ban.
It passed unanimously, and attendees cheered and clapped. Then most journalists left, and the town went back to business.
Before the meeting, Clason said that despite increased media attention, she wasn’t necessarily tired of talking about the ban.
“It is something that needs addressed, but as far as does it impact anything in Henryetta? No. Has it ever impacted Henryetta? Not to my knowledge,” she said.
Except for once this February.
Shelly Emerson, who works at the shop and event center, said she was initially puzzled by the ban.
She’s not from Henryetta and wasn’t familiar with it. Amid the controversy, she’s seen an uptick in business at the shop. So, despite the canceled dance, she sees the experience as primarily positive, she said.
“I think it’s a good thing, honestly,” Emerson said. “It’s just kind of made it come back in the picture where they say, you know, we can get rid of this.”
Clason and Insabella are still trying to comprehend why so many people outside Henryetta cared about the ordinance. The ban made national news, and both have been contacted by Canadian news organizations.
“We can’t even imagine. We can’t imagine,” Insabella said. “The only thing I can think of is there’s probably very few towns left in the U.S. that have an ordinance like this.”
An ordinance that happens to echo the plot of a recently remade 1980s film, one Insabella can’t even recall whether she’s seen.
Sitting in the second-floor reception area, where she and her business partner will host an Elvis-themed party on Saturday, the inaugural event for Rosie Lavon’s after the Valentine’s Party was canceled, Insabella said she might like to see the film now.
“I think we’re living it,” she joked.