Weekend Mambo March Aims to Bump and Grind Cabaret Law Into the Ground

No Dancing Allowed

A DJ spins mellow breakbeats inside the meatpacking district bar Baktun as a film of a house party in stop-action is projected onto a hanging screen. A woman sits at a table, watching the film, entranced by the beauty of human movement. But those characters on the screen are the only ones who are allowed to dance here.

On the opposite side of the city, a red light illuminates dancers in the basement of a Lower East Side nightclub. (The nightclub asked to remain unnamed, for fear of a police raid that could shut it down.) The drums rattle out a rhythm as one of the band members leans into the mike. "It's illegal to dance. Did you hear about that? It's some crazy law. So if a cop comes down here, you have to stop," he says, the audience nodding in defiant outrage. "You know, we're outlaws."

Several blocks away, on Avenue B, a No Dancing sign dangles over the bar at the Lakeside Lounge. "Is that a joke?" asks Brian Rubenstein, who just flew in from Chicago. His voice mingles with the blues track that wails through the bar's speakers and resonates off its brick walls. "How can you play music and expect people not to dance? I can't believe, of all the cities, New York would have a law like this."

The Lakeside Lounge enforces the ban on boogie.
Photograph by Pak Fung Wong
The Lakeside Lounge enforces the ban on boogie.

"Dancing is one of the oldest forms of human expression," says Rubenstein's friend Michael Gordon. "It's a basic human right." * But not in Rudy Giuliani's city. In recent years, the mayor has waged a war on dancing, and we're not just talking about the topless kind.

He's armed himself with the cabaret law, which bans dancing in nightclubs that lack a cabaret license. The law was originally designed to crack down on Prohibition-era speakeasies and Harlem jazz clubs, but had lain dormant for over 70 years. That was until Giuliani's administration dusted it off about four years ago and began enforcing it against legal nightclubs.

In protest against Rudy's crackdown on illegal dancing, the Dance Liberation Front will stage its fourth major rally on August 27, called "The Million Mambo March." Founded by comedians Robert Pritchard and Jen Miller, also known as Deputy Disco Fever and Osama bin Travolta, the group hopes to spread awareness of the cabaret law and garner support for its eradication.

Miller says she expects 400 to 600 people to boogie down in support of the DLF cause. These happy-footed fanatics will march from Tompkins Square Park to Washington Square Park to spread their message that tripping the light fantastic is not a crime. "One thing about us is that we're not the best dancers in the world," says Miller, who wore camouflage and a tutu to the group's last event. "But the law is so stupid that we want to fight it with complete absurdity and humor."

Along the way, they plan to stop intermittently to dance and hear brief speeches from DLF organizers. "People ask me, 'Why do you choose to protest a dance law when there are so many other atrocities in the world,' " says Miller. But this is about more than just dancing to her. "It's a free speech issue. Once you attack dance, what's next?"

Other DLF events have included a twist-a-thon in Times Square, the hokey-pokey around City Hall, a conga line up Avenue A, and a rally in front of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Footloose was playing.

Miller's cohort, Pritchard, insists that social dancing is an expressive right. "If you give the government the right to tell you that you can't fidget, they're getting into your womb, your head, your body," he says. "At what point is it dancing, though? What if five people start doing a minimal rhythmic movement? What if you bounce on your toes and then move one arm?"

Pritchard objects most to Rudy's overzealous enforcement of the cabaret law and his one-size-fits-all approach. "Giuliani's treating restaurants with jukeboxes as if they were warehouse-size discos," he says. "The mayor dusts off arcane restrictions on our personal integrity and uses them to bludgeon honest businessmen and people who are out to have a good time."

"Inspectors have described dancing as anything from 'moving rhythmically' to 'gyrating up and down.' They've even taken out dictionaries, offering a multitude of definitions, including 'twitching.' "

Though no dancing signs have sprung up throughout the city, few people know about this law or its scope. "If I see someone dancing, I'll give them 30 seconds before I tell them to stop, because I know it's illegal," says Lakeside Lounge bouncer Mark Kalbin.

Lakeside is by no means a dance club. In fact, there's very little room even to move around. But four years ago, the club was ticketed because a fire inspector identified two people as dancing to a live band. The bar's co-owner, Jim Marshall, was told he would be padlocked for the weekend if anyone was caught dancing again. "I actually knew the law," Marshall says. "I just didn't think it would be enforced at that level—a couple of girls shaking it while the band was playing."

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