The Safety Dance

You Can't Dance if You Want To

Bookman and Rabin say that allowing incidental dancing—say 10 or so people in a small bar setting where the primary activity is not dancing—would clear up many of the headaches currently clogging the system. Some NYNA members like Brooke Webster, the owner of Meow Mix, say that the proposal is not ideal but it is at least a step in the right direction. Dell also believes that an incidental-dancing clause would have helped bars like hers that were being attacked.

Famed civil-liberties lawyer Norman Siegal scoffs at the idea of "incidental dancing." "Does that mean I can only dance with one leg? I can only kind of move a quarter of my body?" he jokes. "If you're going to allow people to dance, if we want to put a cap on it, cap the size of the place."

"Look," says Baxley. "The cabaret law itself is absurd. It's totalitarian. Two years ago the only places it was illegal to dance were Manhattan and Afghanistan. And now you can dance in Afghanistan," he says.

Free your hind: Shelter is one of 316 places in NYC where you can legally dance.
photo: Staci Schwartz
Free your hind: Shelter is one of 316 places in NYC where you can legally dance.

There is much uncertainty over the new administration's policies regarding nightlife. While some club owners see Bloomberg as being generally more business-friendly, others fear that Bloomberg only has big businesses in mind: Another era of megaclubs is about to be ushered in, with the advent of Estate@Limelight, Crobar, and Buddha Bar. But Bloomberg's recent actions—the proposed smoking ban (which NYNA has successfully deflected), the Silent Night campaign, and the recent rash of raids—have left a sour taste in their mouths.

For Halcyon's Shawn Schwartz, it feels like the same-old, same-old: "I think the most telling moment of the Bloomberg administration so far was his speech where he said that there'd be slashes in education programs, and fuck the poor and the elderly, but don't worry—the squeegee guys won't be back!"

Conversations with Gretchen Dykstra, the Consumer Affairs commissioner, revealed little insight into the administration's position, but she is much more open than officials in the previous administration to amending the law. "We're happy to meet anybody who wants to talk with us. That's an invitation," she says. She does not, however, entertain the notion that dancing is regulated in New York City. "Dancing is not regulated. The places that allow dancing are regulated. Deregulated dancing is a misnomer," she says.

Dykstra says she was very surprised that the law was being used as a "catchall" when she came into office, but adds, "I don't mean it makes it easy to shut these places down."

But, say many of the law's detractors, that is exactly how it is used. One of the first places to get busted for illegal dancing was Hogs & Heifers. "I really think that it is a law that is misused in most cases," says Dell. "They, in my opinion, couldn't get us on anything else. They got us for cabaret."

This sentiment is echoed by many club owners. They say that selective enforcement and the subjective judgment of inspectors leave them with little bargaining room, which would only be made worse if incidental dancing were written in. "It seems like it would cause more problems," says Eric Demby of Legalize Dancing NYC. "It would allow for more selective enforcement of the law, and it seems like a fairly hollow attempt to respond to what is clearly a significant hole in their [NYNA's] position."

The Slipper Room—a Lower East Side bar owned by Camille and James Habacker that has DJs and hosts burlesque and theatrical performances—typifies the type of establishment most affected by the dance police. The Habackers' ordeal began in spring 2001, when they received their first ticket for illegal dancing, which resulted in a $150 fine.

For a year everything was quiet. Then they got another visit on a Thursday at 6 p.m. and were promptly padlocked and handed a hefty fine of $30,000. "We had two options: Plead guilty and reduce the fine to $6000 or fight it. That's when we hired Norman Siegal," says Camille. Siegal met with the DCA, who were "shocked" that the venue got nailed and agreed to leave them alone.

There are three ways the law can be stopped. One possibility is for the mayor to ignore it. Another, more likely, scenario is through working with City Council members, as Legalize Dancing NYC is doing with Alan Gerson. They have been drafting legislation for Gerson to introduce to the City Council that would either eradicate the law or fairly amend it. Gerson, who says he is "offended" by the cabaret law, wants to couple a revamped noise code with the cabaret proposal, because he believes it's noise—not dancing—that most irks community members.

And the final, most time-consuming and costly method of getting rid of the law is to take it to the courts—something that Norman Siegal says he's prepared to do.

For Siegal, Demby, and other activists, the issue is not about noise, safety, zoning, or quality of life. It is simply about the right to dance. For them, the cabaret law is a First Amendment and civil liberties issue—which Bookman and Rabin dismiss as an "interesting tangent" and an "academic discussion."

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