A new movement is afoot to repeal New York City’s anachronistic cabaret law, which essentially bans dancing unless the establish has a nearly impossible to obtain special license.
Brooklyn-based group Dance Liberation Network has a petition, and will host a town hall meeting tonight at Market Hotel in Bushwick at 7 p.m.
Put on the books in the 1920s during Prohibition to shut down black jazz clubs and speakeasies, the law makes it illegal for three or more people to dance in any bar or restaurant that does not have a special “cabaret license,” which is nearly impossible to get. While the law was largely forgotten in during the disco era, Mayor Rudy Giuliani dusted it off in the ‘90s to crack down on the city’s night club scene on behalf of real estate developers.
Lately, according to organizers, enforcement against dancing is again on there rise. Venues face fines of up to $3,000 for a first-time violation alone, and risk losing their business license altogether.
Activists prohibition pushes the city’s dance culture into unregulated and potential dangerous spaces. And after a fire at an underground dance party in Oakland killed 36 people, the deadliest structure fire in the United States in a half-century, the stakes feel higher now than ever.
“The Oakland tragedy was a wake up call for the community, and the catalyst for us to start taking a hard look at the ways that city policy threatens the creative community,” John Barclay, who owns Bossa Nova Civic Club, told BrooklynPaper.com.
Acquiring the license is notoriously difficult. Businesses must get approval from the building and fire departments, pass a community board review, electrical inspections, and employee background checks, and pay upwards of $1,000. All this is prohibitive for the vast majority of small bars and clubs where people might want to get down.
Today, only 118 of over 25,000 otherwise licensed venues in New York City have the permit to legally allow dancing, according to the Department of Consumer Affairs, down from about 1,000 in the 1960s. Many clubs display signs warning “No Dancing,” often ironically juxtaposed with loud music and gyrating bodies.
Government officials say the law is useful in preventing quality-of-life issues, like excessive noise and public intoxication in residential areas, and helps root out troublesome establishments harboring illegal activities like drug trafficking.
But pro-dancing advocates point out that there are already plenty of laws on the books to prevent all of these problems. Since the ‘20s, the city has created modern departments and codes to monitor alcohol sales, occupancy limits, noise, zoning, and fire protection, all superseding the cabaret law’s supposed purpose.
The New York Times should have included disco and hip hop when they opined in 1987, “it does a great disservice to our city and American culture, for its sole remaining impact - one never intended by its original authors - is to discriminate against the playing of jazz, our national chamber music.”
Over the years, the law’s been subject to a variety of court battles and amendments, and seen various degrees of enforcement.
In 1946, the city expanded the law to require musicians to carry “cabaret cards,” an infamous chapter in jazz history. Musicians had to reapply every two years, with fingerprinting and police interview. Black musicians were routinely denied approval, or had their cards revoked. Jazz greats Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis were all banned from playing in New York at one time or another.
Jazz Times wrote in 2012, “the administration of the [cabaret] card, governed by a mysterious and often intransigent bureaucracy, more or less imposed the conditions of a police state in which music-making was cast as a privilege rather than a right.”
The card requirement finally met its end in 1967, after years of legal and public challenges from entertainment stars, including Frank Sinatra, and the cabaret law overall largely fell out of enforcement throughout the ‘70s and ’80s.
Amidst the campaign to “clean up New York” in the 1990s, however, Mayor Rudy Gulliani re-weaponized the cabaret law as part of his campaign against the dance culture of house and hip hop, which was ascendent in New York City and positioned against the expansion of big-money tourism and real estate development.
The police conducted routine raids of night clubs throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s. As the New York Times reported in 2003, bouncers at one club in the East Village would flip a secret light switch when the inspectors came, signaling the DJ to cut the dance music and put on Radiohead instead. But even that was not enough to prevent the club’s eventual closure.
The issue gets to the heart of a larger argument about freedom of expression, and more particularly, which people and forms of expression are considered acceptable and which are considered deviant. Obviously, race and class are central factors.
As Let NYC Dance organizer Adam Snead told W Magazine recently, “the fact that it remains is not only an ugly blemish on a city that is seen as the cultural capital of America, but also a reminder that we are still not truly free to live out loud. If we cannot express ourselves through the simple, natural movement of dance, then how can we claim to truly be free?"