Like many residents of this famously liberal city, Iris Nicholas was baffled when the City Council last year passed strict regulations on strip clubs, including a lap-dance ban.

Where did this prudish streak come from?, she wondered.

No bother. The city's voters rejected the new rules by a 2-to-1 margin last week, rendering the city safe for lap dances once again. It was especially good news for Nicholas, who makes her living in black fishnets, 7-inch stilettos and not much else.

"I've worked in other states, states that are supposedly more conservative than Washington but are way less strict," she said after a recent stage dance at the Deja Vu downtown. "The rules are very puritanical here, but this vote shows that people in the city don't have that mentality."

The vote closes one chapter in Seattle's contentious relationship with the strip club industry — a two-decade effort to prevent or, more recently, gently dissuade new cabarets from opening within city limits.

No strip clubs have opened in Seattle since the late 1980s, when the number jumped from two to seven, prompting the city to impose a 180-day moratorium. For the next 17 years, the City Council repeatedly extended the moratorium.

Last year, former comedy- and music-club owner Bob Davis, who's been trying to open a cabaret here since the early '90s, sued and a federal judge struck down the moratorium as an unconstitutional restraint on speech.

Mayor Greg Nickels, worried that a rash of new clubs might open, proposed a series of rules: Dancers had to stay 4 feet from customers. Patrons couldn't give money directly to dancers. The clubs had to increase their lighting and get rid of any private rooms.

In addition to dissuading clubs from opening, the regulations would be easier for vice officers to enforce, the mayor said.

Considering that Seattle's rules were relatively strict for a big city to begin with — no alcohol at clubs, no nude women except on stage — the dancers feared for their livelihoods.

Some said they might move down the coast to Portland, where customers can drink, smoke, gamble and get lap dances at the city's several dozen adult nightclubs.

Many flocked to council meetings to protest, some toting small children. The measure passed 5-4 anyway.

Two of Seattle's four existing clubs launched a referendum campaign, and officials agreed not to enforce the rules pending the outcome. Nicholas said she's currently earning about half of the $900 to $1,200 a week she made last year.

"A lot of people heard about the 4-foot rule and they think that's how it is," she said. "Hopefully our business will pick up again."

Nickels is resigned to new clubs opening. He's calling on the City Council to hurry up and do the politically sensitive work of determining where to allow them. He favors creating a red-light district in industrial south Seattle.