By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Dance (Get Down on It)
With Rudy Giuliani far from City Hall, the owners of the Slipper Room thought it was safe for their customers to cut loose. But plainclothes inspectors padlocked the Lower East Side bar on March 28 after gathering evidence of illicit rhythmic movement. The Slipper Room lacks a cabaret license, required of all New York City bars and restaurants to permit people to bust a move. To reopen his lounge, owner James Habacker paid a fine of about $6000 and pleaded guilty to violating the city's administrative code. Since the padlocking, Habacker has hung "No Dancing" signs and even hired someone to stop the wiggling on weekends.
Inspectors also fined the Habackers last year, writing in their citation that "a partially naked male" was spotted dancing. But that was during the Giuliani era, when the mayor strictly enforced the Prohibition-era ordinance, originally enacted to control immoral behavior associated with nightlife and jazz. Only 3.4 percent of the city's bars and restaurants licensed to sell alcohol have the coveted permit.
Though Michael Bloomberg has a far more fun-loving reputation than his predecessor, so far he hasn't changed the cabaret law or curbed its enforcement. "The mayor is committed to rigorously enforcing the law and improving the quality of life of all New Yorkers," says Bloomberg spokesman Jerry Russo.
Still, dance activists and cabaret law opponents are cautiously optimistic. "Communication is day-and-night better," says Robert Bookman, who represents the New York Nightlife Association, a business coalition formed during Giuliani's reign. On May 16, Eric Demby of Legalize Dancing NYC (and also a frequent contributor to the Sound of the City) joined the Slipper Room's Habacker, civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, and City Councilmember Alan Gerson's chief of staff, Dirk McCall, for a meeting with Gretchen Dykstra, commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs, the agency that licenses and monitors dancing. "We want to amend or abolish the law," says McCall, who adds that Gerson hopes to propose legislation by the end of the year. Says Demby, "The forward momentum is there, and that's a really welcome contrast from the previous administration."
The biggest challenge, according to Demby, will be reaching a consensus on how to maintain the cabaret law's quality-of-life and public-safety provisions without regulating dancing. "It's not the act of several people dancing that's a problem, but everything that goes along with that," concurs Gregory Heller, chair of Community Board 3, which includes the Slipper Room's Orchard Street location. "Usually the music is louder and there's a cover charge, so people wait on the street." Fire Department spokesman Jim Spollen adds, "We monitor dancing because the crowds create a need for more fire precautions."
But that leaves the Slipper Room's customers with very little wiggle room, which, along with a precarious economic climate, might shut down the bar for good. Profits are down by one-third since their no-dancing policy began, says Habacker, who can't even apply for a cabaret license because the Slipper Room isn't located in the 25 percent of Manhattanmanufacturing and commercial districtszoned for public dancing. "It's hard to have a successful business and abide by this law," co-owner Camille Habacker contends. "Who wants to come to a place where every time they get up to have fun, they're told to sit down?"
New York isn't the only city to see increased enforcement of dancing restrictions in recent years: Police have clamped down on illegal dancing from San Francisco to Pound, Virginia, an Appalachian coal-mining town of about 1000 people, where Golden Pine Restaurant owner Bill Elam is challenging the constitutionality of the town's dancing permit in federal court. "Sooner or later in your life you have to stand up," Elam says.
Encouraged or suppressed, bodies will most likely keep moving. Back in New York at the Cock, a gay bar on Avenue A, Sean Salmela stands in the middle of the floor, swaying to a pounding techno beat. "If we know we can't dance," he says, "we just move in place." Lina Katz