Rebecca Willis used to love dancing a Friday night away at the Marshall Depot.
Bobbing and weaving, dipping and twirling, an exuberant Willis would wheel around the former train depot, now leased by the town for community gatherings. But for Willis, the music stopped seven years ago when the town of Marshall formally banned her from the Depot, charging that her gyrations simulated sexual intercourse.
Willis fought back. She filed a lawsuit that’s been wending its way through the court system. Her case reached the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in March, where she won her appeal. Willis is now headed back to federal court in Asheville, where she hopes a trial will decide the question of whether the town violated her constitutional right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment by banishing her from the dance hall.
Rather than cutting the rug these days, she’s crusading for her constitutional rights.
Willis, 63, lives outside Marshall and works as a caregiver. Tabloid TV shows have labeled her a “dirty dancer” and a “dancing grandma.” But Willis says she’s determined to keep pressing her case.
“People should understand that I’m fighting for my rights—and for their rights,” Willis emphasizes. “This is a serious thing when someone takes away your right to come into a public building.”
Jon Sasser, a Raleigh attorney who usually represents Fortune 500 companies, was hired by the American Civil Liberties Union to represent Willis. He says she’s looking forward to “telling her story and getting her day in court.” The 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, says Sasser, is a critical right—one “people had to fight through the 1960s for. It’s the same right that says you can’t require people to go to segregated schools or sit at the back of the bus.”
Mountain Xpress: What was your reaction to receiving the letter?
Rebecca Willis: It just stopped me. I didn’t know what in the world I did wrong. I did go to [Mayor John Dodson‘s] house to explain to him what happened. He said, “We need rules and regulations down there.”
Did you stop dancing?
I went back down there. I thought, “I’m not doing anything wrong: Why can’t I go down there? I kept on dancing, and about 11 weeks later, I get a letter from the mayor telling me, “Due to inappropriate conduct, you are banned.”
What happened next?
I went to an attorney. I didn’t know anything about your rights or how it worked. He wrote a letter to the town that they had violated my constitutional rights. We asked them to let us know. Then I went to the media. I went to the Town Board and asked them to forgive me, and they said no way. That’s when I decided to go to the ACLU. That was 2001 when I did that.
What are your thoughts on the media attention you’ve received?
I was on Good Morning America, Inside Edition. I was in Star Magazine, and of course that had to soup that [story] up. I was interviewed by National Public Radio. My husband got tired answering the phone.
I think some of them were making fun of me because of my age. They don’t understand where I’m coming from. … I think my rights are important: I’m a human being, my rights were violated, and [the media] didn’t emphasize that.
Do you want a jury trial?
Yes, I do. The evidence will tell the story.
How have you kept on going with your legal battle?
I knew they had done something bad to me. It’s what they said about me that wasn’t true—that’s what hurt so bad. Then I got to thinking, I don’t want that to happen to no one else, to have your rights taken away from you. I’m glad I’ve stayed in it this long. It’s paid off. Three federal judges looked at the facts and saw that my rights were violated.
Do you still go dancing?
I still dance. I’ve got to keep my bones moving. I don’t go where I like to go, but you get out, you can get to talk to people, let your hair down and just have fun. Dancing—I don’t know what it is—people say I have rhythm. It makes me feel young at heart. People just can’t get over me dancing like I do at my age. Young guys come up and tell me they can’t believe it.
Do you think your dancing is inappropriate?
I would never dance inappropriately in front of a child. They came out saying that I was simulating sex. I think what got the Depot stirred up was my short skirts. They were just above my knee.
Did you ever hear from people unexpectedly?
I did hear from one woman up north somewhere and she wrote me a letter and told me to keep on dancing. And another woman sent me a check to help with my attorneys’ fees and told me to keep on dancing.
Is there anything else you’d like to say or that you’d like people to know about your case?
I just really appreciate people supporting me on this. I feel like people just don’t really care sometimes about your constitutional rights. What if it was you? Wouldn’t you want someone to stand for you? We’re too quick to judge somebody because of what somebody says. [Pause.] I’m sorry; it makes me want to cry. There’s no law that they can ban me from that place—that means my rights were taken away. I just wish people would be more open-minded about everybody’s constitutional rights.
=Go to www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles to see court documents related to Rebecca Willis’ case.=