Rebecca Willis is dancing all the way to the bank.
Willis voluntarily dismissed her federal lawsuit against the town of Marshall last week after the town’s insurance company agreed to pay her $275,000 to settle the suit. She sued six years ago after the town banned her from the local dance hall for what it deemed dirty dance moves.
Despite the big payday, Willis didn’t win her crucial point: As part of the settlement, Willis remains banned from the former train depot, now known as the Marshall Depot.
The settlement has left both sides declaring victory.
“We prevailed,” says Marshall town attorney Larry Leake. “She’s not coming back.”
In a written statement, Willis says she’s both happy and relieved that her six-year legal saga is over. “Although I personally no longer desire to attend dances at the Town Depot, today’s $275,000 settlement should send a message to the Town that in the future, any government-sponsored events should allow for diversity and free expression by members of the community.”
The controversy started back in December 2000, when Marshall’s mayor sent a letter to Willis informing her that she’d been banned from the Depot. Court documents show that Willis had been a regular at the Friday-night dances. But some of her fellow revelers complained that she danced “in a sexually provocative manner – gyrating and simulating intercourse with her partner while hunched on the floor.” There were also complaints that Willis wore short skirts and would frequently bend over during her dancing, “exposing her underwear, her buttocks and her private parts.”
Willis, in the court record, denies that she ever danced in an inappropriate manner. She describes her style on the dance floor as “exuberant and flamboyant.” Now 64 and working as a caregiver, she admits that she wore short skirts to the dances, but contends that she always wore underwear and never exposed herself.
In the courts, both sides won decisions. The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation took up Willis’ case, and the two sides sparred after Willis filed her lawsuit in 2002.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a decision to dismiss her lawsuit, arguing that a jury should be allowed to explore the issue of whether Willis was singled out for her behavior.
Leake, the town’s attorney, says the decision to settle with Willis was the decision of the Interlocal Risk Financing Fund of North Carolina, which serves as the town’s insurance company.
“The insurance carrier made the decision. The town of Marshall has no control over that, no influence,” says Leake, who maintains that the town did nothing wrong in Willis’ case.
The story garnered Willis national media attention, with news outlets dubbing her the “dirty dancing grandma,” though Willis told the Mountain Xpress in a July interview that she thought much of the media attention was sensational. (The movie Dirty Dancing, incidentally, was shot in Western North Carolina.)
In the interview, Willis maintained that her constitutional rights were violated, and that she looked forward to a jury trial. “People should understand that I’m fighting for my rights—and for their rights,” she told Xpress. “This is a serious thing when someone takes away your right to come into a public building.”