The Safety Dance

You Can't Dance if You Want To

In the winter of 1999, a small army of cops, firefighters, and inspectors descended unannounced on the Cooler, the now defunct meatpacking district club. They weren't looking for drugs or underage drinkers. They were looking for people dancing.

Unbeknownst to the squad of officers, a doorman had flipped a switch alerting the sound tech via a flashing light that the cops had arrived. The sound tech quickly killed the booming drum'n'bass and piped country music through the speakers.

So when the cops sauntered into the Cooler looking to bust people for busting a move, the drum'n'bass fans in attendance did exactly as planned: They stood perfectly still.

Three years later, the cabaret law is still in effect, and it is rumored that at least one East Village bar still performs a similar ruse—originally employed by gay bars in the '40s—to escape the dance police. With a recent rash of raids on Bleecker Street bars by the Bloomberg administration—some of which resulted in the padlocking of venues—club owners have every reason to worry. Mayor Mike isn't turning out to be the beacon of light that clubland expected.

Activists are trying to do something, anything, to overturn or change an archaic 1926 law licensing dancing that the Giuliani administration—and now the Bloomberg administration—have used to combat quality-of-life complaints and troublesome clubs.

But the nightlife industry's sole voice, the New York Nightlife Association (NYNA), the only organization that has any real power with community boards, City Council members, and other politicians, is not in favor of repealing the law.

Its president, David Rabin—who is also an owner of Lotus—sparked a minor fury last month among bar owners when he reiterated his stance at a dance convention and again in the New York Post that dancing should remain regulated, with exceptions to allow for incidental dancing. He angrily pointed his fingers at other venues, Pangaea, Serafina, and Rehab—all of them his direct competition—for operating without cabaret licenses.

Rabin's "big mouth" (his words) also may have inadvertently sparked a renewed campaign against nightlife by the city. At least one of the spots named by Rabin—Serafina on Lafayette Street—may have gotten a visit as a direct result of his outbursts. The restaurant had been having Wednesday-night parties and had already incurred one catering violation, says Gretchen Dykstra, the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), the city agency charged with handling cabaret licenses.

Dykstra says she is aware of Rabin's complaints and says of the other establishments he named: "We are typing up all of that." Of Serafina, she says, "It's not surprising for someone to get padlocked if they continue to blatantly thumb their nose at the law."

Rabin feels bad, sort of. "I feel badly for some of the employees who may not be making as much money this week, but I don't feel badly for a guy who was deliberately violating the law," he says.

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Fight club: NYNA president David Rabin
(photo: Sarah Pores)

One club owner who runs an unlicensed cabaret even called him to thank him for not sending the cops his way. "I started laughing. I don't have a bat phone saying 'Illegal dancing on 24th Street!' " says Rabin incredulously. "Believe me, I have no influence over the mayor's office whatsoever."

He is most upset about bait-and-switch operations like Serafina that have allegedly presented themselves as restaurants or lounges, only to become full-fledged nightclubs, replete with long lines and rowdy patrons. Such deceit ruins it for the rest of the industry. "Because they [owners] have lied about what they are going to do, they [community boards] are going to assume you are lying also," says Rabin.

But others point out that Giuliani effectively created a club cartel by enforcing the cabaret law and say that club owners like Rabin are only interested in protecting their own investments.

Rabin argues that he and other club owners have—in some cases—poured millions of dollars into spaces that are zoned for a cabaret, and to allow a free-for-all is unfair: "The immediate eradication of the cabaret laws would be the same as if the city overnight announced that there was no longer a ceiling on the number of taxi medallions," he wrote in one of several lengthy e-mails to me. "Can you imagine the outrage from people who had invested their life savings in a medallion only to find it rendered worthless in one fell swoop?"

And, he says, he did everything fair and square. So should everyone else. "The process exists, we didn't put it there, but if we follow it and raise money and work hard because we know that at least we have a built-in and protected niche, then others should have to play by the same rules," he says.

While his detractors—and there are many of them—understand Rabin's business concerns and empathize with the potential loss of money, they don't feel it is pertinent to the discussion.

Shawn Schwartz, co-owner of the Brooklyn café Halcyon, and a member of NYNA, takes issue with Rabin and the association's stance: "Those that have a cabaret have struggled and done what they had to do with bad circumstances. I applaud them for their struggle, but it doesn't mean they should turn around on the other side and maintain an unjust system because they were able to survive it."

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