Indeed, many bars—Baby Jupiter, Coney Island High, Hogs and Heifers, Vain, and countless others—have been shut down the second time police have witnessed unlicensed dancing on their premises. "They tend to shut you down on a Friday night, so that you have to stay closed for the weekend," says attorney Robert Bookman, who represents the New York Nightlife Association, a coalition of nightclubs formed four years ago.

So to keep bars from breaking the law every time someone moves to the music, Bookman and the NYNA plan to discuss amending the cabaret law with City Council members. They hope to include a provision for "incidental dancing" that would specify a minimum number of people who have to be jiggling before a club is violating the law.

Marshall has been strictly enforcing the no dancing law ever since he was ticketed for turning a blind eye to Lakeside customers' illegal undulations. "We just try to explain to people that it's not our doing, but the law is that they can't dance," he says. "We live in an atmosphere where almost nothing is tolerated. It could be one person standing in front of the jukebox shaking their ass, and that would be illegal."

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

"There's no exception in the law," says Bookman. During cross-examination, inspectors have described dancing to him as anything from "moving rhythmically," to "gyrating up and down." Bookman says they have even taken out dictionaries, which offer a multitude of definitions for dancing, including "twitching."

Even more frustrating is that Lakeside is located in a residential zone, and cabaret licenses are given out only to clubs located in manufacturing or dense commercial zones. But aside from Giuliani's unprecedented enforcement of the antiquated cabaret law, his administration is also making it almost impossible for many nightclubs that are properly zoned to get a license.

"It's the administrative baton with which we are all being beaten," says Baktun manager Philip Rodriguez. He has been trying to get his cabaret license for almost one year, but his efforts have been stalled in the Department of Buildings, and he says his bureaucratic somersaults aren't getting him anywhere.

Baktun opened two years ago as a cyberplatform: a physical space from which to run live webcasts and to promote cutting-edge electronic music and digital film on the Internet. Several months later, the club received two summonses for operating an "unlicensed cabaret." Rodriguez says he installed the necessary additional safety requirements soon after receiving his first summons, and that he has been doing all he can both to get the stamp of approval he needs from the buildings department and to stop people from dancing in his club.

He has blocked any open spaces with furniture and has hired another security guard to stand in the middle of the dance floor, instructing people to stop shimmying. "It's like a militarized zone in there," says Rodriguez. "We have to tell people to stand still. It's absurd."

He points out that cabaret licenses are required for both strip clubs and dance clubs—"the two taboo businesses in New York City," he says. "It's kind of ironic that we're lumped together." With the mayor's crackdown on pornography, Rodriguez suggests, all applications for cabaret status are being forced to seep slowly through the city's bureaucratic molasses.

Even after Rodriguez gets the building department's approval, he'll have to go through several more layers of city government before he can get his cabaret license, including getting approval from his local community board and the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Meanwhile, Baktun has received four more summonses from the consumer affairs and police departments. The bar has lost over 60 percent of its business and can survive financially for only another two months. Rodriguez says he has been unable to support as many artists and musicians as he did before the crackdown. "My hands are full dealing with bureaucracy and nickel-and-diming my books," he says. "I don't produce anything creative anymore."

Rodriguez sits solemnly on his bar stool. "This would have been illegal 70 years ago too," he says, looking toward the horn player, who is blaring a solo over a groove laid down by the drummer in the other room. The cabaret law originally restricted not only dancing, but also music: Specifically, it required a cabaret license for bars where more than three musicians were playing, or where the instruments played included percussion or a horn.

New York University law professor Paul Chevigny speculates that the law was written to zone jazz out of existence. Twelve years ago, he successfully challenged the constitutionality of the portions of the law that applied to music. Yet musicians say their livelihood can still be quashed as a result of Giuliani's hegemonic rule.

For George Tabb, whose punk band Furious George has been playing gigs in the city for 20 years, increased enforcement of the cabaret law is still affecting musicians. "It's like a domino effect," he says. He remembers when the cabaret law was used to shut down illegal parties where he was playing, but he never expected it to be used against legitimate clubs.

Tabb says the law is limiting the venues where he can play because nightclubs are decreasing the number of nights they devote to live music out of fear that someone might dance. "People like to dance when listening to music. That's not happening, because people can't move."

« Previous Page
Next Page »