PHILADELPHIA In the end, the Philadelphia Tax Review Board didn't have to decide on the artistic merits of lap dances.

Instead, the board ruled Tuesday that the city was wrong to apply the amusement tax - typically paid on cover charges and tickets to ball games and concerts - to lap dances at three of the city's largest strip clubs.

One of the arguments attorneys for the clubs made during hearings this summer was that lap dances are theatrical performances exempt from the levy.

But the board simply said the amusement tax is "generally understood" to be paid only on the cost of admission to a venue.

The board also said the city's rationale for applying the tax to lap dancing was "vague and inconsistent."

The ruling saved Cheerleaders, Club Risqué, and Delilah's collectively about $1.5 million in back taxes, interest, and penalties.

George A. Bochetto, who represented Club Risqué and Cheerleaders, called the city's argument a "perversion of the language of the amusement tax."

He said the city chose the clubs as "test cases" for the theory that activity inside a venue could be taxed. He said the ruling would have far-reaching effects.

"This is really a victory for every commercial establishment in Philadelphia that has a door charge," Bochetto said. "Piano bars, pool halls, karaoke institutions. All of these places of business benefit from this ruling."

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said the administration would review the ruling and "then evaluate its option." The city could appeal to the Court of Common Pleas.

The board's ruling, which Chairwoman Nancy A. Kammerdeiner read into the record, also noted that the city had audited the clubs in the past without applying the amusement tax to lap dances.

"These taxpayers should not be held responsible for failing to foresee that the city's interpretation of the amusement-tax ordinance would evolve," Kammerdeiner said.

If the board had weighed whether strip clubs could claim the theatrical exemption, Bochetto said, he felt the lawyers had presented a good case.

Among other evidence, they had called expert witnesses who testified that erotic dancing carried the hallmarks of a theatrical experience, falling within the country's long-standing "burlesque tradition."

Bochetto said the dancers choreograph, practice, and perform their routines the same as other artists.

"There are good performers and there are bad performers," he said. "The good performers are successful and make a lot of money. The bad performers don't. That's show business."